- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Five Democratic and Republican candidates who want to succeed GOP Gov. Chris Christie in this year’s election are doing what they can to make it clear they’re not him.

The candidates gathered Tuesday at a luncheon forum held across from the statehouse in Trenton, shortly before Christie gave his seventh state of the state address, and with the primary contest to succeed him just six months away.

The contest is getting underway as Christie’s approval rating is at record lows.

It’s the first time this year the candidates have gathered and it shows how the contest is gaining attention. What was on the back-burner for much of 2016 will now be front and center before New Jersey voters.

Democrat Phil Murphy, who’s won support from the state’s influential Democratic establishment, cited the George Washington Bridge scandal and said the governor was self-serving. He called for a higher minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit and establishing a childcare tax credit.

“The state of the state after seven years of Chris Christie is a New Jersey that is less fair, less just and (that) has less of a middle class,” Murphy said.

Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the only Republican at the event, came with his slogan “a new direction,” but called for proposals similar to what Christie has pushed: overhauling public worker health benefits and recalculating school funding with an eye toward lowering property taxes.

Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski called Christie’s leadership a failure. He called for tuition-free college for families earning under $125,000 and he committed to rejoining a regional greenhouse gas initiative aimed at cutting emissions.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak highlighted his support for environmental legislation over the years and called for a number of debates among the candidates.

Bill Brennan, a former firefighter and attorney who brought a criminal misconduct complaint against Christie over the bridge scandal, called for overhauling the pensions system. Specifically, he called for Social Security payments to go toward pensions and for a 401(k)-style plan.

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