In N.J., a Nasty Race for Governor: Incumbent Corzine Trails GOP's Christie

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Cheryl Bulvid, who works at the Hallmark gift shop on the main street of this mile-square city, is a registered Democrat who helped elect her party's candidate, Jon S. Corzine, to the governor's office four years ago -- "unfortunately," she adds.

"We're paying so much in taxes, it's ridiculous," she said on a recent weekday. "Every time you turn around, the fees are going up." With the tolls, she said, her daily trip from her home in Bayonne to the shop here in Hoboken costs 90 cents each way, forcing her to find alternate routes.

Corzine may not be responsible for the largest tax -- the property tax, which goes to support local schools. And the governor has been grappling with one of the worst state budget deficits in the country. But no matter. Bulvid is leaning toward supporting Republican Christopher Christie for governor in the November election.

"I think part of it is, he's tough on crime," she said of Christie, a former U.S. attorney. Like others here, she was stunned when Hoboken's young new mayor, Peter J. Cammarano III, was forced to resign July 31, after just 30 days in office, when he was arrested in an FBI sting operation after allegedly taking a $25,000 bribe.

Voters like Bulvid are the main reason Corzine is struggling in his reelection bid, trailing Christie by 10 points, 47 to 37 percent, in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. Democrats running statewide in New Jersey typically need to rely on strong voter turnout from populous and heavily Democratic Hudson County, which includes Bayonne and Hoboken, across the Hudson River from New York City.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only states with governor's races this year, so both are taking on outsize importance as the first major national barometers of the public mood toward President Obama and his ambitious agenda on the economy and health-care reform. National Republicans, after two election cycles of huge losses, are looking at the two races to begin what they hope to claim as the beginnings of a comeback.

Like other sitting governors, Corzine, a former Wall Street executive, has been in office during a period of severe economic decline, with unemployment in New Jersey at 9.3 percent. Corzine has slashed the state's budget, cut programs, furloughed public workers and shuttered some state offices for several days.

None of those moves has helped Corzine's popularity. Among likely voters in the Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent said they had an unfavorable view of Corzine and 60 percent disapproved of the job he is doing as governor. "I think [people] are just fed up with Corzine," Bulvid said.

The race has already turned nasty, with both sides saturating the airwaves with negative television ads.

The Corzine camp decided early to use a two-pronged strategy against Christie -- to paint him as an arch-conservative Republican tied to the Bush administration and to challenge his reputation as a corruption-busting prosecutor by raising questions about his ethics and judgment.

Corzine's campaign and state Democrats thought they received a gift early last month when the House Judiciary Committee, investigating the firings of U.S. attorneys in 2006, released documents showing that Christie, while still New Jersey's top prosecutor, spoke with top Bush political aide Karl Rove about running for governor. Corzine accused Christie of violating a federal law, the Hatch Act, by discussing a run for office while still serving as a U.S. attorney.

Then, days later, came the revelation that Christie had made a $46,000 personal loan in 2007 to a subordinate in the U.S. attorney's office, Michele A. Brown, after Brown's husband lost his job and the couple became financially strapped. Christie never reported the loan -- or Brown's monthly repayments, with interest -- on any disclosure forms or his income tax returns.

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