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New Jersey story: Governor race heats up

After some 'Sopranos'-style campaigning by both sides, Democrat Jon Corzine may pull an upset and win reelection.

November 01, 2009|Bob Drogin

HOBOKEN, N.J. — Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, climbed on a stage here the other night and hailed his state's political history at a rally for Jon Corzine, the embattled Democratic governor running for reelection.

"New Jersey," Booker shouted to supporters in the upscale sushi bar, "is a state of impossible dreams."

Until recently, that described Corzine's likely odds at the ballot box Tuesday. But the unpopular governor's race against Christopher Christie, the Republican challenger, has tightened to a dead heat after months of relentless negative campaigning by both sides.

Political analysts say Corzine, 62, now may be poised to pull an upset and keep the state in Democratic hands. Most credit President Obama, at least in part, for the apparent surge of support.

Corzine praises Obama at every stop and argues that only he himself can help the White House achieve its priorities in Washington. "We have to do our part to make sure our president passes healthcare," he told the crowd here.

Obama swept New Jersey by an overwhelming margin last year, and he remains far more popular with Democrats and independents than Corzine. The president will return today, his third campaign visit, and will be the marquee attraction at two rallies.

"The Corzine camp wants to make this a referendum on Obama," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "It's the only way they win. The Republicans want to make this a referendum on Corzine."

Hoping to halt Corzine's comeback, Christie has posted a complimentary video of Obama on his website and is careful not to criticize the president on the campaign trail. The Republican instead emphasizes his record as a crusading federal prosecutor and his pledges to cut taxes and spending.

"I think this election is about New Jersey," Christie told about 50 people at a restaurant in Monroe Township. "I don't think it has anything to do with President Obama."

Judy Liebowitz, a retired manager for the state lottery, said Christie would help clean up a state sullied by political scandals. "I don't like that we have the reputation as the country's most corrupt state," she said. "I think he can change that."

Christie is spending the last few days of the campaign on a bus tour to the state's 21 counties. On Thursday, he was joined by the last Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, who first won office in 1993 amid another bruising economic crisis.

"It's worse today than when I took office," Whitman told about two dozen elderly voters at an assisted-care facility in Sewell. She turned to Christie and added a warning, "It's not going to be a lot of fun."

Christie told the older voters that he and his wife may be forced to move to a state with lower taxes if he is not elected, an unusual pledge for a candidate.

"We'll become airplane grandparents," he said, though he and his wife, Mary Pat, have no grandchildren. "If you are wondering why I'm running for governor, that's why."

Christie, 47, is a large man who admits he has struggled with his weight for 30 years. His size became an issue when Corzine ran unflattering pictures of Christie in a TV ad that said he "threw his weight around" to avoid traffic tickets.

Even by New Jersey standards, that struck many as a low blow. But charges of misdeeds, ethical lapses and lies have dominated the campaign. At times, the rough-and-tumble has resembled a plot from "The Sopranos."

Christie, the former gang-busting U.S. attorney, turned out to be a distant relative of Tino Fiumara, a twice-convicted mobster from the Genovese organized crime family. Christie had recused himself from a federal investigation of Fiumara, but once visited him in prison.

Corzine, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, owned a stake in a Wall Street hedge fund that invests in four Atlantic City casinos. Corzine refused calls to appoint a special prosecutor into what Republicans called a clear conflict of interest.

And a third-party candidate, Chris Daggett, made headlines when his driver, a retired state trooper, forgot a loaded pistol in a car they had borrowed. No charges were filed.

Daggett is a wild card in the race, and his protest candidacy has drawn double-digit support in most polls. Republican leaders fear he pulls votes away from their candidate, and Christie's aides now call Daggett "a second Corzine," not an alternative to him.

Neither Corzine nor Christie has offered detailed proposals for how to maintain core services while lowering taxes. New Jersey homeowners pay some of the nation's highest property taxes, although gasoline and some other taxes are lower than the national average.

Nor has either candidate stirred much excitement among voters. Polls show many dislike Corzine, think he has failed as governor and don't believe he can revive the economy. Christie is nearly as unpopular and has faced sharp criticism for refusing to detail his budget proposals.

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