By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009
HOLMDEL, N.J., July 16 -- After last year's hard-fought Democratic presidential primary season finally ended, New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine became one of candidate Barack Obama's most visible campaign surrogates. Now President Obama is returning the favor, making New Jersey his first full-fledged foray into active campaigning since taking office and trying to assist Corzine, who is struggling in his reelection bid.
"We're proud that Barack Obama is our president, right?" Corzine shouted to a crowd of partisans gathered at an outdoor arena waving blue and white "Obama & Corzine" placards on Thursday. "Now, with a partner in the White House, there is no limit to what we can accomplish."
Obama, appearing to relish his new role as campaigner in chief, returned the effusive praise. "He's been tested by the worst recession in half a century," Obama told the cheering crowd. "He hasn't avoided doing what's hard." Obama called Corzine "an ally with the Obama administration in helping us build a national recovery plan."
New Jersey has been hammered by the national recession and by high unemployment, and Corzine has taken heat for raising taxes and suspending property tax rebates to help cover the state's crippling budget deficit. The economic slide has taken a toll on Corzine's approval ratings; 33 percent of voters approve of the job he is doing as governor, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, released Tuesday. In a head-to-head matchup, Corzine trails his Republican opponent, former U.S. attorney Christopher Christie, with 41 percent to Christie's 53 percent, according to the Quinnipiac survey.
But Obama remains enormously popular in New Jersey. The same poll found Obama with a job-approval rating of 60 percent. Corzine missed no chance Thursday to link himself to the president and reminded the crowd that Christie is a conservative Republican.
"Barack Obama is really magical in this state," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. "I think what [Corzine] is hoping is some of that 60 percent approval rating rubs off." The fact that Obama is visiting this early in the race, she said, means that Corzine is eager to shore up his support among Democrats and is attempting to build enthusiasm among African American voters, who could be key if they turn out in large numbers in November.
New Jersey and Virginia feature the nation's only gubernatorial races this year, and both will be viewed as tests of whether Obama's popularity can persist in the face of continued high unemployment and growing concerns that the economy has yet to show signs of a full recovery.
Just as the White House is hoping to keep this traditionally blue state in Democratic hands, Republicans here are hoping a Christie victory would mark the first step in their long comeback march after devastating election cycles in 2006 and 2008. A Christie win would also allow Republicans to argue that the party's precipitous slide in the Northeast has been halted.
"If Christie wins, I think it will be a shot in the arm for Republicans nationwide," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "It will be seen as a harbinger of things to come in 2010."
Some analysts here made an analogy to 1993, the year after Bill Clinton won the presidency. That year, Christine Todd Whitman won the governor's office in New Jersey, and the following year, Republicans took control of Congress.
Despite Corzine's poll numbers, few here are ready to count him out. Democrats have a big advantage in voter registration, and Corzine, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, has a vast personal fortune to spend on the race. He has already been on the air in the pricey New York City television market with tough ads questioning Christie's ethics and saying the Republican would take away a woman's right to an abortion. Campaign analysts said the ad buys appear to be in the range of $1 million a week.
Corzine spent a combined $100 million on his successful campaigns for U.S. senate and for governor. "Everybody knows Corzine is going to spend a zillion dollars," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "He really hasn't started to spend it yet. When you pour money in," Carroll said, "it makes a difference."
Christie's campaign spokeswoman, Maria Comella, said the campaign has not yet begun television ads to oppose the Corzine barrage. But the Republican Governors Association has been spending heavily on Christie's behalf. As for the Obama visit, Comella said, "No amount of endorsements are going to detract from Corzine's record."
Another variable in the race is the presence of independent candidate Christopher Daggett, who was a top environmental official under a former Republican governor. Daggett recently surprised local politics watchers by raising about $300,000, enough to qualify for state matching funds. That would give Daggett $1 million to spend, and he will be allowed to participate in debates.
In a three-way matchup including Daggett, the Quinnipiac poll predicts Christie would win with 47 percent, Corzine would draw 38 and Daggett 8 percent, including 13 percent of independents.