- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

Republican candidates are showing new political strength in some states this year, but none seems more improbable than conservative Republican Christopher J. Christie’s big lead over embattled Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s bid for a second term in deep-blue New Jersey.

The bearish 46-year-old Mr. Christie, whose only elective office was a brief stint as a county commissioner, achieved statewide recognition as a corruption-fighting U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey who sent scores of corrupt politicians — of both parties — to prison during a seven-year tenure. He then set his political sights on the governorship in December, brandishing an aggressive 10-point agenda of ethical reforms and plans to rein in spending, cut taxes and rebuild the state’s battered economy.

Given New Jersey’s recent economic and ethical woes, Mr. Christie’s resume has put him consistently ahead in the polls and a potential rising star in GOP circles.

“If you want partisan politics as usual, well, I’m not your guy,” the Newark native said in a recent campaign pitch. “If you really want to change Trenton, let’s start by changing governors.”

In a state where no Republican has won a statewide race in more than a decade, Mr. Christie could be a “bellwether” for a GOP revival in 2010, according to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who stumped with the candidate in the state last month.

Mr. Christie “plays across the state unlike any Republican” in the past several election cycles, Mr. Steele told a gathering of Republican faithful in Pitman, N.J.

“You must be the next governor from this state,” Mr. Steele said. “It is a bellwether in so many ways for the future of our party and the future of our nation.”

With strong name recognition gained from winning convictions or guilty pleas from 130 public officials, including dozens of state, county and local officeholders, Mr. Christie easily won his party’s nomination and for much of this year has led Mr. Corzine in head-to-head polls by double-digit margins. An Aug. 11 Quinnipiac University poll showed the governor trailing his challenger 51 percent to 41 percent among likely voters. An Aug. 6 Rasmussen poll showed Mr. Christie with a 13-point lead.

New Jersey and Virginia, where the Republican candidate also leads in the polls, are the only states holding gubernatorial elections in November. Both races are already attracting outsized attention and national funding as harbingers for the 2010 midterm elections.

In New Jersey, Democrats not only hold all of the top state offices, but both U.S. Senate seats and eight of its 13 House seats. Democrats caution that their polls show Mr. Corzine, a one-time Wall Street financier and former senator who can bankroll his own campaign, slightly narrowing the gap lately and note that past Democratic candidates often close strongly in the race’s closing weeks.

“Many times over the years, Republicans have been leading at this point in the races and the polls have been shown to be incorrect on Election Day,” said Emily DeRose, chief spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association.

But the Democrats’ long political dominance now appears to be threatened by a voter backlash to the state’s widening corruption scandals, in large part driven by the state’s notorious “pay-to-play” politics.

Mr. Christie has been relentlessly linking Mr. Corzine’s administration and stewardship with the corruption scandals that continue to erupt throughout the state. He has called the governor an “oblivious bystander,” an “enabler” of corruption and “the No. 1 financier of corrupt politicians and county bosses in New Jersey.”

The arrests late last month of 44 public officials and religious leaders on corruption charges, including three mayors and two state lawmakers — arising out of Mr. Christie’s previous investigation into money laundering and political corruption — have further fueled his campaign to clean house and turned more voters against the state’s ruling Democratic powerbrokers.

The Quinnipiac poll found that voters by 50 percent to 15 percent, with 34 percent undecided, associated Democrats more than Republicans with corruption in the state. The state’s large bloc of independent voters blamed Democrats by a whopping 56 percent to 9 percent, with 28 percent of the Democrats blaming their own party, the pollsters reported.

Notably, voters by a 54 percent to 31 percent margin said Mr. Christie would do a better job of fighting corruption than Mr. Corzine, Quinnipiac reported.

“Almost everyone in New Jersey thinks” corruption is a big problem, Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac polling institute, said in a statement. “And two-thirds feel personally embarrassed to live in a state where politicians are pictured in handcuffs.”

The weak economy is also not helping the incumbent.

The state unemployment rate stood at 9.2 percent last month, but the Corzine campaign pointed to a state Department of Labor and Workforce Development report last week that said private sector businesses added 13,000 new jobs in July, ending 17 straight months of job cuts.

But the Corzine campaign has been striking back at Mr. Christie in its TV ads, charging that he has a number of skeletons in his own closet that raised troubling questions about his credibility on ethical issues and political corruption.

The charges include a 10-year, interest-bearing $46,000 loan he made to a top aide in the U.S. Attorney’s Office that he did not report on his tax return or on federal disclosure forms; millions of dollars in no-bid contracts by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, sometimes to friends and allies for compliance monitoring and other legal services; and reports that Mr. Corzine discussed his political plans to run for governor with Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, raising questions of whether he skirted Hatch Act prohibitions against federal employees engaging in political activities.

Mr. Christie publicly apologized last week for failing to report the loan on his tax returns and disclosure forms, calling it “an oversight,” and said he was amending his tax filings to reflect the additional income.

“When I make a mistake, I’m going to admit them. It was certainly nothing that I was trying to conceal or hide,” he said Wednesday in a press conference that made headlines across the state.

Though last month’s arrests across the state elevated state corruption as a paramount issue, polls say taxes remain the No. 1 issue driving voters this fall. New Jersey property taxes are the highest in the nation and Mr. Corzine has come under fire for raising taxes on wine, liquor, cigarettes and wealthy taxpayers to help balance the budget.

“Governor Corzine’s spending is out of control. Taxpayer dollars are being wasted on ineffective programs,” Mr. Christie says in his campaign ads.

Democrats counter that Mr. Corzine by state law must balance the budget and had to make difficult decisions to increase tax revenue to close the deficit gap.

“Governor Corzine is on the front lines of a global downturn, the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations. As governor you have to make hard choices to balance the budget. He’s making sure that New Jersey can recover when the economy rebounds,” said Ms. DeRose at the DGA.

“The only poll that matters is on Election Day,” said Corzine campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith. “The more people learn about Christie the less they like him. Polls show that his negatives have been rising quickly.”

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