With Gov. Jon Corzine closing the gap against Republican challenger Chris Christie, the two mostly put aside the personal attacks that have dominated the airwaves and instead used their first debate to offer vastly different approaches to New Jersey’s economy, mired in its worst economic funk in decades.
Corzine largely stood by his record as governor over the last four years, saying that his administration has worked to reduce “the size and scope of government” and accusing his Republican opponent, Chris Christie, of failing to come up with a specific plan to help the state regain its financial footing.
Christie, a former United States attorney vying to be the first Republican to be elected to statewide office in New Jersey in more than a decade, said repeatedly on Thursday that New Jersey voters were “suffocating” under a weighty tax burden that was driving residents and business from the state, and said that Corzine’s high taxes had stalled the state’s economic engine.
“People are leaving this state in droves, business are leaving this state in droves and taking their jobs with them,” Christie said. “That’s why we have the worst unemployment rate in 33 years.”
“Making tough decisions in a tough environment is what being a governor is about,” Corzine said, adding that he would not rule out imposing new taxes if that is what it takes to balance the state budget in the coming years.
Independent candidate Chris Daggett, stationed at a podium between the two major-party challengers, presented himself as a low-drama alternative to them, as Corzine and Christie had heated exchanges over the economy, health care, and social issues during the 90-minute debate, the first of three.
Corzine, whose recent spate of ads accusing Christie of supporting policies that would hurt women have been credited with tightening the race, contended that his GOP challenger backs mandate-free insurance policies, which wouldn’t be required to offer coverage for procedures including mammograms – a statement that Christie called “shameful” on Thursday night.
“He should pull down” the ad making the claim “and he should apologize,” said the Republican.
“I don’t think it is shameful standing up for the women of the state of New Jersey,” Corzine shot back.
“Isn’t it appropriate that I’m in the middle of these two guys,” Daggett asked at one point during Thursday's debate.
For much of the campaign, Christie has proven resilient, deflecting a series of attacks lodged by the Corzine campaign in recent months about everything from a questionable loan Christie made to a work associate to the GOP candidate’s driving record.
But a poll released on Thursday indicated that Corzine — a former Goldman Sachs Chairman who’s financing much of his own campaign and has considerably more cash to spend on advertising in the home stretch before the Nov. 3 election — may be closing in.
A Monmouth University/Gannett survey released just hours before the debate found 43 percent of voters supporting Christie compared to 40 percent who are backing Corzine, and another 8 percent who prefer Daggett. That 3 percentage-point gap – within the poll’s margin of error – has shrunk significantly from August when polls found the governor trailing Christie by 14 points.
Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray said the changing dynamic showed that Democratic voters were starting to pay more attention to the race.
Still, the poll found that Christie remained the favorite among New Jersey’s independent voters, who supported him by a 49 to 28 percent margin over Corzine. Republicans, 86 percent of whom back Corzine, appear to be more loyal to their party’s nominee than Democrats are to Corzine. Three-quarters of Democrats support the governor.