- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

TRENTON, N.J. | After casting his vote for Democrat Jon Corzine four years ago, Daniel Wilson is backing the Republican challenger this time around, unhappy the New Jersey governor has not eased the high tax burden on state businesses and residents.

“Unfortunately, I feel that he has been an enormous disappointment, and I’m disappointed that I voted for him,” Mr. Wilson said of Mr. Corzine.

The 62-year-old insurance broker is one of New Jersey’s 2.4 million independent — or unaffiliated — voters, an influential bloc that frequently votes based on specific issues and will likely play a crucial role in the race for governor.

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Mr. Wilson said he leans Republican and will support the Republican gubernatorial candidate, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, in the Nov. 3 election.

Conventional wisdom has it that New Jersey elections are won and lost on the strength of the unaffiliated, a group that makes up nearly half the state’s 5.2 million registered voters. That will likely be the case again in November in a race featuring an unpopular incumbent governor who has been unable to deliver much-desired tax relief against a confident, well-known challenger who spent seven years as the state’s top federal prosecutor.

Last year’s presidential election changed the makeup of the unaffiliated voting bloc in the Garden State, adding a new dynamic to the competition for the independent vote.

Because hundreds of thousands of previously independent voters registered as Democrats to vote in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, party officials say the remaining voters in the unaffiliated category now tilt toward the Republicans.

So far, the unaffiliated have been breaking for Mr. Christie. Polls taken this summer showed the challenger leading 2-to-1 among independents. But a Quinnipiac University poll this month showed Mr. Corzine narrowing that gap.

Though courted and coveted, New Jersey’s independent voters remain difficult to define and tough to woo. Many independents lean toward one party, while a smaller group does not identify with Democrats or Republicans.

“They really are swing voters,” said Steve DeMicco, a partner with Message and Media, the Corzine campaign’s strategy consultant. “Voters who do not attach themselves ideologically to the right or the left and tend to be more pragmatic voters — they calculate their self-interest in each election and cast their vote accordingly.”

Chandra McAllister, a stay-at-home mom from Cherry Hill, voted for Mr. Corzine four years ago. A 33-year-old with a master’s degree in education, Mrs. McAllister said she hasn’t decided between the candidates, but will vote for the one who favors generous funding for public education over a voucher system, a position that leans toward Mr. Corzine.

A majority of independents often have acted more like Democrats in the blue-tinted state. In New Jersey, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000. A Democrat has won every U.S. Senate race since 1979 and every governor’s race for the past dozen years.

History might not be repeated in November, however. Two recent polls showed Mr. Christie leading Mr. Corzine by 10 percent and 5 percentage points.

Political experts say those who kept their unaffiliated status after last year’s big shift are more likely to base their votes on issues. About 4 in 10 voters say New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes are the state’s biggest problem. The average New Jersey homeowner paid $7,045 last year. But independent voters are also voicing concern about education, the economy and corruption.

Frances Fisher said the race boils down to trust. The 56-year-old romance novelist from Teaneck said she’s disappointed with Mr. Corzine’s performance, but will likely cast a vote for the incumbent.

“I really do not trust Christie at all,” Ms. Fisher said. “I think he’s very, very much a part of the status quo in New Jersey, and we have the greatest amount of corruption.”

Building on his record as a prosecutor, Mr. Christie has attacked corruption, including a recent sweep that snared five Democratic officeholders and one Republican.

Mr. Corzine has countered by calling for the resignations of elected officials charged with corruption, and attacking Mr. Christie over a $46,000 loan to his second-in-command at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Republican challenger didn’t report the loan on his ethics forms and federal income-tax return, an omission he described as an oversight.

Turnout of unaffiliated voters varies widely from election to election, so statewide campaigns must court the independent vote.

Fairleigh Dickinson University political scientist Peter Woolley said the challenge for Mr. Corzine and Mr. Christie is to turn the enthusiasm from last year’s presidential contest to their advantage.

“The tide in a national election doesn’t bring everybody along for local or state elections,” Mr. Woolley said, “unless they feel a stake in the election.”

The governor often invokes President Obama’s name on the campaign trail, saying things like, “New Jersey has a partner in the White House.”

Mr. Christie’s latest commercial features voters saying they voted for Mr. Obama because they wanted change and support the challenger for the same reason.

Mike DuHaime, a Christie campaign consultant, said the pitch is designed to woo independents as well as Democrats who are dissatisfied with the record of the Democrats who control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature.

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