By Dan Balz
Sunday, October 4, 2009
TRENTON, N.J .
Thursday's first debate in the fiercely contested New Jersey gubernatorial campaign more than lived up to expectations. The 90-minute encounter not only showed why Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine is in so much trouble, it also underscored the obstacles that still lie in the path of Republican challenger Chris Christie.
New Jersey is one of two gubernatorial contests this fall that will be closely -- perhaps excessively -- analyzed for clues to the national mood a year after Barack Obama was elected president. The other is in Virginia, between Republican Robert M. McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. The incumbents are Democrats but they are trailing in polls, though the gap has narrowed in both states.
Virginia may be a better barometer of the public mood than New Jersey, given the commonwealth's significance in Obama's election last year and the absence of an incumbent in the race. Although both races are focused largely on state issues, the New Jersey contest has been all about the embattled incumbent.
Corzine is the former Goldman Sachs chief executive who spent lavishly from his personal fortune to become, first, a U.S. senator and then, in 2005, New Jersey's governor. After four years in Trenton, he is deeply unpopular.
The effects of the weak economy, bruising budget battles, his decision to raise taxes and his unpolished political skills put him on the endangered list as the campaign began. Given that record, he has reverted to a time-honored strategy of trying to discredit his opponent. He is spending millions on negative ads doing just that.
Corzine has trailed in the polls all year, and his defensiveness showed on Thursday. Christie hammered him, arguing that the governor has raised taxes too much and cut spending too little. "The people of New Jersey are suffering," he said. "They are suffocating under these taxes." Corzine accused Christie of making up his facts.
New Jersey voters appear in a sour mood, and one of the most telling moments in the debate came when citizens, on videotape, got to ask questions. One segment focused on taxes, including the high property taxes. The voters' anger was palpable. "Taxes are skyrocketing and out of control," complained one person. Another said: "The taxes in New Jersey are the highest in the country." The clip could easily have been an ad from Christie's campaign.
If the race turned only on Corzine's record, he would probably lose. But Christie has vulnerabilities as well. He is a former U.S. attorney who made his reputation prosecuting politicians of both parties, and he has used those skills to prosecute the case against the incumbent. But he has yet to offer a credible plan to solve the budget woes.
The next governor will face a budget deficit estimated at $8 billion. Christie has pledged he will not raise taxes, but cannot say how he would balance the budget without new revenue. He has identified possible areas, to cut but they fall short of what is necessary to get the job done. Corzine and independent candidate Chris Daggett scoffed at Christie's remedies.
"Mr. Christie has no plan," Corzine said. "It's a fantasy." Daggett, who would cut some taxes but also significantly expand the state sales tax, chimed in: "It's easy to criticize when you have no plan of your own. . . . The tooth fairy is not going to come to solve this problem."
Corzine has not limited his attacks to Christie's fiscal plans, pummeling his opponent on ethics and health care. The toughest ads charged that Christie's health-care proposals would deny women coverage for mammograms. In the debate, Christie called the ads "shameful" and demanded that Corzine take them down. Because the ads have worked, Corzine demurred. "I'd rather stand with the women of New Jersey than I would the insurance companies," he said.
Christie's views on social issues, including abortion, are more conservative than the majority view in New Jersey, a reality that has proven to be a burden to other Republican candidates. . His hopes of winning depend on his ability to keep voters focused on their unhappiness with the incumbent's record.
Christie once led the race by double digits, but recent public polls show that his lead is a few points. Corzine thinks the state is reverting to its Democratic form and that, barring a mistake on his part, he can win. But he conceded, "I'm not where I want to be."
Christie and fellow Republicans read the polls differently. Though Christie has lost ground, Corzine is still struggling to gain enough support to win. Christie said there have been more than 40 public polls this year. "Not once has he [Corzine] been ahead," he argued after the debate. "That's a trend."
In the public polls, Corzine has rarely been above 40 percent, well short of what he might need to win, even in a three-way contest. Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, called Corzine's apparent ceiling "symbolic of a fatal sickness."
Joel Benenson, who is polling for Corzine, said: "I don't believe there's a ceiling here. I think Governor Corzine has gained enormous ground in the last few weeks, and it's why you're seeing Chris Christie and his campaign act unsettled and frenetic."
That Benenson, who was Obama's lead pollster last year, is even involved in the race is a measure of how worried the White House has been about Corzine's chances. Benenson did not come aboard until August, and only at the urging of White House officials.
The wild card in the race is Daggett, the independent candidate, whom Corzine's team sees as a possible lifeline in the final weeks. With sharp critiques of his rivals and a sense of humor, Daggett turned in the most entertaining performance on Thursday night.
After one of the many barbed exchanges between Corzine and Christie, he joked, "Isn't it appropriate that I'm in the middle of these two guys?" Later, after repeated compliments from Corzine and Christie, he quipped: "Sounds like both these two guys might vote for me."
Daggett has the potential to drain away voters who dislike Corzine but aren't sure they want to support Christie. If Corzine does have a ceiling, the better Daggett does, the more that enhances the incumbent's chances of winning.
The dynamic of the New Jersey race has definitely changed. At the beginning of the summer, White House officials and other Democratic strategists were more worried about losing New Jersey than Virginia. They now believe victory in the Garden State is possible. But that will depend on whether Corzine is more effective in making Christie the issue than the challenger is in reminding voters why they are so unhappy with the governor.