By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dispirited Republicans, hoping to prove the Grand Old Party is not yet extinct in the Northeast, have placed their final hopes this year on the governor's race in New Jersey, where Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) has seen his approval ratings plummet as fast as the state's financial picture.
But in an echo of the party's national internal debate, New Jersey Republicans aren't certain whether their best chance for success is with a candidate who can appeal to independents or with a staunch conservative who advocates a flat tax, would ban abortion and expresses disdain for moderates.
Much of New Jersey's Republican establishment has lined up behind Christopher Christie, a former U.S. attorney who built a reputation as a crusader against political corruption, putting 130 New Jersey politicians behind bars. Christie said he would bring that prosecutor's toughness to the state government with a plan to cut taxes, reduce regulation and trim the size of government. "There'll be a new sheriff in town when I come in January," he told factory workers at a recent event here.
"I think my background and my personality fit these times," Christie said later in an interview. "I don't really care about being popular. I care much more about being respected."
Recent polls show him defeating Corzine 45 percent to 38 percent in a hypothetical November matchup, and GOP leaders see him as the most electable Republican in a reliably Democratic state.
But first Christie must win the Republican primary, a smaller universe of voters more conservative than the statewide electorate. And Christie's main primary opponent is an unabashed conservative, Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of the small town of Bogota. Lonegon's main campaign proposal is a 2.9 percent flat tax, and he has the support of some national conservative groups.
"Christopher Christie is much closer to Jon Corzine in his philosophy than he is to me," Lonegan said in a telephone interview. "He supports big government."
Calling Christie more electable, Lonegan said, "is just continuing this losing Republican establishment message that we have to run a moderate." A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Corzine and Lonegan tied in a hypothetical matchup.
The battle before the June 2 primary is "a microcosm of the whole fight being played out nationally over the heart and soul of the Republican Party," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. "Just like on the national scene, these arch-conservatives won't go away, as much as the moderates say, 'We can't win with you guys.' "
The Quinnipiac poll showed Christie leading Lonegan 46 percent to 37 percent among likely Republican primary voters, with 14 percent undecided. Both sides say the primary will be decided by turnout, with a lower number helping Lonegan, whose supporters are considered more committed.
Republicans are badly in need of a victory this year on the Eastern Seaboard north of the Potomac River. They narrowly lost a March 31 special congressional election in a heavily Republican district in Upstate New York. On April 28, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) announced that he was leaving the Republican Party to become a Democrat, saying his state's primary voters were too conservative for him to win the nomination for another term.
Republicans nationally have targeted Corzine, with his anemic approval ratings and his background as a Wall Street executive, as particularly vulnerable this year. They also think New Jersey, with the country's only governor's race besides Virginia's open-seat election, provides a chance for a Republican comeback.
From the mid-1990s until the early part of this decade, Republican governors were in charge in Trenton, Albany, Harrisburg and even Boston, with moderate or business-minded leaders such as Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey, George E. Pataki in New York, Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, and William F. Weld, Paul Cellucci and later Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.
The intraparty dispute is over how to win now. Some Republicans say the key is to run candidates with crossover appeal, like those past successful governors, who can win among independents and some Democrats while holding the Republican base. Conservatives such as Lonegan and his backers say the formula is to run staunch conservatives and paint a sharp ideological difference between the parties.
Christie describes himself as "a Republican who is unabashedly a common-sense conservative."
"I'm talking about cutting taxes," he said. "I'm pro-life. I'm against gay marriage."
But some think Christie is not conservative enough, or is at best a recent convert. They note that he has said he once favored abortion rights but changed his position in late 1995 after hearing his daughter's heartbeat in the womb. Christie supports a ban on what opponents call partial-birth abortions and a 24-hour waiting period for juveniles seeking abortions.
Lonegan would ban all abortions.
"Yes, Chris Christie is telling everybody he's a conservative. But on June 3rd, if he wins, he'll be telling everybody he's a moderate," said Mike Illions, a conservative blogger and Internet strategist who is backing Lonegan. "They keep saying conservatives can't win in New Jersey. How do we know? We've never had one."
Whichever Republican emerges will still face a formidable challenge against Corzine, who has two built-in advantages: a large and growing Democratic voter-registration edge and his vast personal fortune.
Corzine spent more than $100 million combined on his campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and for governor in 2005, and he could spend that much on this race to try to shift his dismal approval ratings. New Jersey is one of the country's most expensive states for statewide campaigning, as contenders must buy airtime in New York to reach voters in northern New Jersey, and in Philadelphia to reach the southern part of the state.
Still, 54 percent of voters disapprove of the job Corzine is doing as governor, and 58 percent disapprove of the way he is handling New Jersey's economy, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
"Corzine, I think, is considered by most people to be very smart and have his heart in the right place," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Polling at Rutgers University. "There is not a lot of enthusiasm for the way he has governed, and in some quarters there is animosity. It gives an opening for someone who says, 'I'm going to do things differently.' "