TRENTON, N.J. — A tough-talking former federal prosecutor will take on a disliked governor in New Jersey, a long-anticipated matchup that could test the Democratic incumbent's reaction to the recession and whether the wave of Obama's popularity can wash him to victory.
After gliding to victory in their respective party primaries Tuesday, Republican Christopher J. Christie and Gov. Jon S. Corzine are set to do battle in the only governor's race in the country to feature an incumbent Democrat.
Christie, 46, was enthusiastically backed by New Jersey's Republican establishment, receiving virtually every county GOP endorsement. Early polls show him maintaining a narrow lead over Corzine. Christie is widely viewed within the party as the only candidate with a shot at capturing the governor's office, something no Republican has done since Christie Whitman won a second term in 1997.
"Chris has brought the party together and put us in a position to win," said state Sen. Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton.
A one-time Wall Street titan and liberal former U.S. senator, Corzine has had a rocky first term. Though he committed to bring fiscal responsibility to New Jersey, he's been beset with money woes, forcing him to scrap or delay promised programs. A gaping $3 billion budget hole in the fiscal year that starts July 1 has forced him to postpone a pet project — plans to offer pre-kindergarten to all poor public school children.
Corzine has suffered other missteps, as well. A plan to use large highway toll hikes as a revenue generator to pay down state debt was abandoned after near-revolt. He fought to the state Supreme Court to keep from having to release e-mails he exchanged with a labor leader he once dated. And he nearly died in a traffic accident while not wearing a seat belt as a passenger in a car speeding to an event.
Christie, meanwhile, is hoping to capitalize on seven years as U.S. attorney, a time when he became known as a corruption buster after amassing a record of 130 political corruption convictions or guilty pleas without losing a case.
The moderate Christie, who was nudged to the right on economic issues and pushed to declare his personal opposition to abortion during the campaign, will probably spend the next few weeks trying to return to the political center. New Jersey has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and even more unaffiliated voters.
Corzine, 62, faced only token opposition in the primary. He officially kicked off his re-election bid Tuesday with Vice President Joe Biden, who made it clear that the Obama administration has a stake in the election.
"Barack Obama and Joe Biden are committed to Jon Corzine's re-election. Period. End of sentence," Biden said. "We need Jon Corzine at the helm."
Political scientist Peter Woolley of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck sees the race as a reflection of Obama's young presidency in a state that solidly supported him, but says it also will be won — or lost — on the economy.
"Party stalwarts on both sides will vote for or against Obama by voting for or against Corzine," Woolley said. "The other referendum will be on whether voters believe the response to the economic crisis has been sufficient."
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Low ratings and bad economy
Corzine has seen his approval ratings plummet amid the worst economic recession in memory. With New Jersey again facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, Corzine is furloughing government employees, has warned of extensive layoffs unless state workers give up their 3.5 percent negotiated pay raise, and suspended property tax rebates.
Christie told supporters in Whippany that Corzine doesn't deserve a second term.
"Sadly, Jon Corzine now joins that long list of politicians who overpromised and underdelivered," Christie said.
With only two governor's races in the country this November — the other is in Virginia — the New Jersey contest has caught the eye of Washington political watchers. National groups already have poured more than $1 million into attack ads.
One reason Corzine is considered vulnerable is because he has failed to lower property taxes, cited among voters as the No. 1 issue in the state. New Jersey has the country's highest property taxes, averaging more than $7,000 a year.
Donna Bilette, a 45-year-old Cranford waitress who is unaffiliated with either party, said she believes Christie will keep taxes lower.
"Anything that comes out of your pocketbook affects your decision," Bilette said.
Corzine is expected to hammer Christie as out of step with New Jerseyans' values and claim he's not the ethics standard-bearer he says he is.
"Our opponents promise the moon," Corzine told 1,500 supporters in his acceptance speech. "They want to cut government, increase spending, slash taxes and balance the budget. They've got this so-called super secret plan. They won't tell you whose taxes they're going to cut — they're going to check with George Bush about that."
Christie was appointed U.S. attorney after being a six-figure fundraiser for Bush. He has since been criticized by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, and others for giving out multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts to friends while in office.
He was also accused of hypocrisy for railing against abuses of the government pension plan but failing to stop a close friend and campaign fundraiser from padding his pension with a part-time political job. The friend quit the job this week amid mounting criticism that Christie was advocating reforms while allowing his crony to game the system.
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