GOP Salivating for N.J. Governorship

With Corzine lagging in polls, Republicans smell blood

With New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine lagging in the polls, Republicans couldn’t be more enthusiastic about their chances of ousting him in November.

But first they must settle an intraparty conflict over who’s best suited to do the job — former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie or former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan. Assemblyman Rick Merkt is also contending for the nomination in Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary, though he trails by wide margins in the polls.

The contest pits two wings of the Republican Party against each other, with Christie widely viewed as the moderate conservative with more general election appeal in a Democratic state like New Jersey and Lonegan framed as the more orthodox conservative.

Corzine trailed both GOP candidates, according to a Research 2000/Daily Kos poll released Thursday, with Christie leading the incumbent Democrat 46 percent to 39 percent, with 15 percent undecided. Lonegan held a 3 percentage-point lead over the governor, 43 percent to 40 percent, with 17 percent undecided.

According to the poll, Corzine’s favorability rating is just 36 percent, compared with 55 percent who view him unfavorably. Nine percent had no opinion.

In the GOP gubernatorial contest, most polls show Christie leading Lonegan by around 20 percentage points. A May 20 Quinnipiac University poll gave Christie a 56-to-33-point lead.

“It’s pretty obvious that it is going to be Christie vs. Corzine,” said Quinnipiac pollster Clay Richards. “There was a little doubt for a while that Christie just didn’t seem to be catching fire, but in the last few weeks, he definitely has and Lonegan has not.”

Christie has been aided in his run by the support of several prominent national Republicans and is seen as having the support of the national party establishment. Former GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Forbes have spent significant time on the stump with Christie and aided the former federal prosecutor in fundraising.

In his endorsement, Romney praised Christie as “a strong conservative voice for balanced budgets, low taxes and more jobs.”

Lonegan has sought to turn Christie’s establishment support against him by questioning Christie’s willingness to let moderate Republicans from outside the state speak on his behalf.

When asked about the endorsements Christie has gotten from popular Republican figures, Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftan quickly interjected, “You mean all these moderate Republicans helping Chris Christie?”

“I don’t think anybody really cares what Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney thinks,” Shaftan said. “They are obsessed with Giuliani, but everyone knows he is a liberal.”

Shaftan dismissed Christie’s advantage in the polls and insisted they are sorely underestimating primary turnout.

“All these experts have shown complete ignorance in New Jersey,” he said.

“This is going be a big turnout in this one,” he added. “If the turnout’s over 400,000, we win easily.”

Christie is already looking to November, when New Jersey will have one of two off-year gubernatorial elections.

“We certainly don’t take the primaries for granted, but the end goal is to take on Jon Corzine, and we have certainly started that conversation now in the primary,” said Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager.

Stepien said the campaign is already sharpening its message against Corzine, whose political stock has plummeted as the state’s economy has necessitated painful budget cuts.

“[Corzine] really has a disastrous fiscal record,” said Stepien, who added that Christie’s message in the general election will be focused on “taxes, debt and state spending.”

“It won’t be just about a poor job that Jon Corzine has done,” he said. “It’s about the better job Chris Christie can do.”

Richards said polls show Christie’s strategy will most likely have traction with voters. “The economy will be an albatross for Corzine,” he said.

Anticipating a battle over the economy, Corzine is already working to shore up weak spots on his fiscal record and to highlight his refusal to blanch in the face of tough budget decisions.

“I don’t need to tell you that times are tough. Even though the current economic crisis is global in origins and scope, here in New Jersey, every community is feeling its effects,” Corzine wrote in a letter to voters posted on his campaign website.

“Especially in times like these, it is essential that our leaders hold firm to our core values and show the courage to do the right thing. My administration has been, and will continue to be, guided by the same values that I’ve championed since my tenure as your U.S. senator.”

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