CAMDEN, N.J. — Politics in New Jersey is about as subtle as a fist to the mouth.
And with each passing blow, it's becoming clearer that this year's governor's race is going to be especially brutish — even by Jersey standards.
Nothing is off the table. Not even Republican Chris Christie's 2002 car accident with a motorcyclist who ended up in a hospital.
“I’m not sure if most of our classrooms have done away with drivers ed, but I think on behalf of our opponent, we should get that back into the curriculum,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Gov. Jon Corzine’s 74-year old running mate and a lady he calls “the feistiest grandmother I’ve ever met,” at a press conference here Friday.
The event, held in front of an early education center in this blighted city, was ostensibly about education, but what Corzine and Weinberg really want to focus on is raising doubts about Christie, the former U.S. attorney who leads in the polls.
The line got a good laugh from a sympathetic crowd full of local educators, but Weinberg wanted it known she wasn’t just having fun at Christie’s expense.
“Go for it,” Corzine encouraged her.
“You know this is not a teenager we’re talking about,” she added. “He seems to have a set of rules for himself and another one for everyone else.”
With poor approval ratings, a sour economy, fresh examples of Democratic public corruption and a dyspeptic electorate, Corzine has little choice but to use an education press conference to hammer his GOP rival on a seven-year-old traffic wreck. His own path to victory, longtime political observers say and even his own campaign acknowledges, will likely only come by rendering Christie as an unacceptable alternative.
"New Jersey races tend to get intense, and this one is heading there more quickly," said Maggie Moran, Corzine’s campaign manager. "I maintain, though, that the public has a right to know about our opponent's hypocrisy."
In an interview following his appearance here, Corzine himself quickly turned to those contrasts when he’s asked what the campaign will turn on, ticking off Christie’s views on a number of health care-related issues, before touching on his larger message of tying his GOP rival to a national party in a deep-blue presidential state.
“Then there is the overall issue of whether we want to go back to policies that got us into the kind of trouble that this country is in or whether we want to go forward,” Corzine said, getting at a theme that is amplified by signs that feature pictures of Christie and George W. Bush and that are tacked up on telephone poles in this city.
“Shared Values, Same Results,” the placard reads. “Bush/Christie’s New Jersey GOP Team.”
Corzine, a former Wall Street executive and millionaire, spent over $6 million on ads hammering Christie this summer and his campaign estimates that he and the state party will put down over $20 million in the next two months.
The strategy is simple: to turn what right now is largely a referendum on an unpopular incumbent into something more complicated. Namely, prompting voters to return to the governor after they find out that the challenger is not the corruption-busting white knight he wants New Jerseyans to think he is. To do this, Corzine is raising questions not just about Christie’s driving record and his ties to Bush — for whom he was a fundraising bundler — but also about the no-bid contracts he’s given out and a loan he made to a subordinate in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“This is the second chance for the incumbent to get a first impression from voters, by muddying up his opponent,” explained Jim McQueeny, a New Jersey political analyst and public relations strategist.
Corzine officials and national Democrats believe the strategy has a chance to work because of the presence of an independent candidate, Chris Daggett, who drew 9 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll of the race. The hope is that voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for the status quo — Corzine — will deliver votes to Daggett that otherwise would have gone to Christie — perhaps a significant enough trove to tip the balance.
It hardly needs to be said that it’s a strategy of necessity, not choice. In fact, New Jersey sources say, Garden State Democrats had been on Corzine over the summer to toughen up his campaign and accept the fact that he couldn’t win by touting his record. There was even some talk of finding a replacement for Corzine on the ballot, and a handful of high-ranking Democrats were thought to be considering the prospect.
But as he’s tuned up his campaign and gotten more aggressive with Christie in recent weeks, Corzine has convinced top-ranking Democrats in the state that he represents their best hope for victory.
The governor and his pollster, Joel Benenson, briefed the Democratic congressional delegation in a private meeting in Newark on Thursday, according to one source who was there, and made the case that the contest is closer than the 10-point margin Quinnipiac reported last week. The two also raised the specter of what a loss here might mean — citing the 1993 election where Democratic losses in New Jersey and elsewhere presaged the historic GOP sweep a year later.
“Everyone stepped away from that meeting feeling good and ready to hit the ground,” said the source. “There was no sense that this is not a winnable election.”
Democrats find some reassurance in the recent tradition in New Jersey where Republican hopes have been raised in the summer and early fall only to be disappointed when the state’s typically late-deciding electorate swings to the left.
But Christie makes the case that this year is different, an argument that even some Democrats privately concede has merit given the economic climate and Corzine’s unpopularity.
This cycle’s model, said Christie, is one that dates back to 1981.
That was the year that Republican challenger Tom Kean defeated Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne after the incumbent instituted the state’s first income tax.
Twelve years later, Republican challenger Christie Todd Whitman beat Democratic Gov. Jim Florio after he raised taxes nearly $3 billion.
“Jon Corzine has raised taxes almost $9 billion, and I think the reaction to that is going to be us,” said Christie in an interview with his running mate, Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, following a Friday night stroll down an Ocean City boardwalk thronged with Labor Day weekend beachgoers. “New Jersey is a very tax reactive state.”
Voters here have the highest tax burden in America, and skyrocketing property taxes are invariably cited when asked about top issues.
Christie’s message: “We have to cut state spending so we can cut taxes and make New Jersey competitive again.”
As for his own ethical issues and ties to Bush, Christie jabbed back.
“Jon Corzine wants to talk about anything but his record,” said the Republican. “So he wants to make this about a president who’s been gone now for almost a year … I wish the governor for once in this campaign would start talking about his record and why it deserves him to be reelected.”
When asked if he considers himself a moderate or conservative, Christie doesn’t hesitate: “I’m a conservative.”
That goes for abortion, too, making Christie part of an increasingly rare breed: a Northeastern Republican who opposes abortion rights.
When one local anti-abortion activist, Rita Reyes, eyed Christie, she bounded across the boardwalk to shake his hand and thank him for his stance.
Told that Reyes said she expected him to act as governor to institute some parameters on the procedure, Christie said he was in favor of such limitations as parental notification, a 24-hour waiting period and ending partial-birth abortion.
But he made sure to note that Guadagno, his running mate, supports abortion rights and that he takes a more left-leaning approach on another hot-button social issue, gun control. Christie is also quick to cite areas where he agrees with President Barack Obama, who is still popular in the state, citing merit pay for teachers and green jobs. (For his part, Corzine said Obama is “a considerable plus, a significant asset.”)
Christie says he’s ready for the onslaught and will give as good as he gets. “We’re going to be very aggressive about his record,” he said of Corzine.
Ultimately, after both sides savage each other, the race may be decided by whether there is a feeling that the economy is turning around.
Corzine said the economy is moving in the right direction, but conceded that, “It hasn’t yet shown up in the employment figures, which are tough for incumbents.”
“It’s volatile right now,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray of the overall campaign. “While Christie has held a steady lead in horse race numbers since February, there is a lot of churning going on.”
If voters see economic progress, Corzine officials hope that “people will come back to what they believe,” as one source close to the governor put it, alluding to the state’s Democratic leanings.
But Christie said the outcome will be determined largely by the incumbent's record.
“The job he’s done in last four years doesn’t merit him being re-hired,” Christie said.
Either way, it won’t be pretty.