- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

TRENTON, N.J. | A tough-talking former federal prosecutor is taking on an unpopular Democratic governor in New Jersey, a long-anticipated matchup that could reveal the length of President Obama’s coattails.

After gliding to victory in their respective party primaries Tuesday, Republican Christopher J. Christie and Gov. Jon Corzine are set to do battle in the only governor’s race in the country to feature an incumbent Democrat. Some say the outcome will be a referendum on Mr. Obama’s young presidency. Others contend the race will be won - or lost - on the economy.

Mr. Christie, 46, was enthusiastically backed by New Jersey’s Republican establishment, receiving virtually every county Republican Party endorsement. Early polls show him maintaining a narrow lead over Mr. Corzine. Mr. 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 Christine Todd 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, Hamilton Republican.

A one-time Wall Street titan and liberal former U.S. senator, Mr. Corzine has had a rocky first term. Though he committed to bring fiscal responsibility to New Jersey, he’s been beset with monetary 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 prekindergarten to all poor public school children.

Mr. Corzine has suffered other missteps, as well. A plan to use large highway toll increases 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.

Mr. Christie, meanwhile, is hoping to capitalize on seven years as a 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. He’s hoping to turn disenchantment with Mr. Corzine into votes for himself.

The moderate Mr. 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. A centrist platform is seen as necessary to win in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans, and even more unaffiliated voters.

Mr. Corzine, 62, officially kicked off his re-election bid Tuesday with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., 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,” Mr. Biden said. “We need Jon Corzine at the helm.”

Mr. Corzine has seen his approval ratings plummet amid the worst economic recession in memory. With New Jersey again facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, Mr. 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.

Mr. Christie set the tone for his attack in his acceptance speech, telling supporters in Whippany that Mr. Corzine doesn’t deserve a second term.

“Sadly, Jon Corzine now joins that long list of politicians who overpromised and underdelivered,” Mr. Christie said.

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