- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Three weeks before Election Day, the race between New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and his Republican rival, former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, is nearly a dead heat, though campaign analysts say the embattled liberal Democratic governor is still in trouble.

Mr. Christie has led in the gubernatorial contest — often by a double-digit margin — throughout most of this year, but Mr. Corzine, a former Wall Street executive, has been using his vast personal fortune to pound his conservative opponent with negative TV ads that have shrunk the former federal prosecutor’s lead to between two to four points, according to recent polls.

“Christopher Christie is still ahead in the Garden State, but when he looks in the rearview mirror, he sees the bearded visage of Gov. Jon Corzine getting closer,” Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in his last polling report Sept. 30. It showed Mr. Christie ahead by 43 percent to 39 percent among likely voters, while a Rasmussen poll had him leading by three percentage points on Oct. 5.

The wild card in the race is independent Christopher Daggett, who was capturing around 12 percent of the vote in the three-way contest.

The state’s largest newspaper, the Newark-based Star-Ledger, on Saturday, endorsed the independent.

The newspaper said that Mr. Daggett, who has held state, regional and federal positions but never held elective office, would break “the hold of the Democratic and Republican mandarins on the governor’s office” and bring about “the kind of change needed to halt [the state’s] downward economic, political and ethical spiral.”

The same polls also show that a majority of New Jersey voters are strongly critical of the state’s high income-tax and property-tax rates — the issue that Mr. Christie has made the centerpiece of his campaign.

Sixty-one percent of voters polled said property taxes will go up under the Corzine administration, while only 34 percent said that about Mr. Christie if he becomes governor, according to the Quinnipiac poll.

But veteran election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg cautioned last week that recent news stories suggested that Mr. Corzine “is closing the gap” offer “a distorted view of the contest.”

“Describing Corzine as closing the gap or pulling closer conveys the impression that Corzine is gathering support and increasing his standing in the contest. He is not,” Mr. Rothenberg wrote on the RealClearPolitics Web site last week, saying the Democrat’s chances of a second term “are no better than they were a month ago.”

“The governor continues to be stuck between 38 percent and 42 percent in the ballot test, where he has been for many months, and the fundamentals of the race continue to favor the Republican challenger,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

Mr. Christie, who has built a reputation in the state by putting scores of corrupt public officials in prison, is running a conservative campaign that calls for curbing property taxes, cutting business taxes and reducing state spending.

Mr. Corzine, a wealthy former chief executive of the Wall Street investment firm of Goldman Sachs, is a long-standing liberal who has said he will not rule out raising taxes to bring down the states looming budget deficit — a stand which has turned many of the Democratic Party’s base against the governor.

While polls show that nearly 60 percent of New Jersey voters disapprove of the job Mr. Corzine is doing (independents disapprove 63 percent to 31 percent), the governor has a clear financial advantage in the race and has been running a wave of media ads questioning Mr. Christie’s honesty.

The attack ads warn that the GOP hopeful plans to make “fiscally irresponsible” budget cuts that would cut health care coverage benefits such as mammograms — charges his opponent denies. Nevertheless, the attack ads have taken a toll, as Mr. Christie’s honesty and favorability ratings have fallen.

The governor, who opted out of the states restrictive campaign-finance program, has spent just under $17 million thus far. Mr. Christie, who is abiding by the state fundraising limits, has spent $5.4 million, according to his campaign advisers. The Republican Governors Association has spent about $4 million on TV ads in Mr. Christies behalf and intends to spend more in the next three weeks.

“Christie is tapped at $10.9 million. That is as much as he can spend,” said Mike DuHaime, the Christie campaign’s chief strategist.

With New Jersey voters naming taxes as by far the state’s most important problem, the Christie campaign intends to focus on the issue for the duration of the campaign, his advisers said. The latest Quinnipiac poll showed that 41 percent named high taxes the overriding issue in the state, compared with 17 percent who cited the economy, unemployment and jobs.

“That’s the biggest issue. People are fed up about taxes. For the first time in about 70 years, we are going to have fewer private-sector jobs at the end of the decade than at the beginning. We have the highest state and local tax burden in the country. Corzine is suffocating taxpayers,” Mr. DuHaime said.

While Mr. Christie has seen his lead drop by 4 percentage points since Sept. 1, Republican strategists said that was to be expected in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1.

“The last four times we won the governor’s race, three out of that four were won by just one point. So when Republicans win in this state, we win close,” a Republican strategist said.

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