Bridgewater, N.J.—A half-hour into his pitch to voters at a town hall here last week, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Chris Christie is still on the topic he opened with: how he'd reduce real estate taxes by cutting costs. And when Christie finally moves on to another subject, reforming urban schools, he argues that doing so would achieve "a double moral good" of helping minority youth and reducing the price of education—which means lower real estate taxes.
In a state with the highest property taxes in the nation, eating up roughly 7 percent of the average New Jerseyite's salary, Christie's message is resonating. Combined with a recent sales-tax hike, property-tax griping is the biggest reason first-term Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, is so vulnerable heading into next month's election, despite plowing nearly $16 million of his personal fortune into the race in one of the nation's bluest states. A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll put Corzine's approval rating at 38 percent and showed him in a dead heat with Christie, a former U.S. attorney. "To find a governor who got re-elected with numbers this low, you have to go back to Gray Davis in California in 2002," says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governors' races for the Cook Political Report.
Like property taxes, Corzine's other political troubles are state based: a projected $9 billion budget deficit, the region's highest unemployment, and a recent federal corruption sweep that arrested a half-dozen Garden State politicians, almost all Democrats. But with New Jersey one of only two statewide races in the country this year (the other is Virginia's gubernatorial contest), the national parties are investing heavily here and will read national implications into the outcome. The Republican Governors Association has spent $4 million and counting, with the GOP looking for a confidence boost ahead of next year's midterm elections. President Obama appeared in New Jersey with Corzine early in the contest, and his political team is intimately involved in Corzine's campaign decisions, so the race is a test of whether he can save an unpopular incumbent.
Corzine is trying hard to nationalize the race. His campaign literature brims with photos and quotes from Obama's July visit, and his billboards picture Corzine alongside the president and the words Keep it going. "The role of the president is to define how high the stakes are this year," says Corzine campaign manager Maggie Moran. "We need to send a message to the rest of the nation that the Bush years are over."
A former Goldman Sachs CEO, Corzine has another big weapon in that effort: his war chest. He has spent three times what Christie has so far, much of it on ads attacking his opponent personally. The spots have helped Corzine recently to erase his opponent's months-long lead in the polls.
Relying on national GOP money, Christie is nonetheless campaigning as a Jersey-style Republican, which means emphasizing economic issues over social ones and courting some traditionally Democratic constituencies. While Republicans have seen a national grass-roots resurgence around opposing Obama's healthcare reform push, Christie is pledging to bring health insurance to more residents. "I have great respect for the president," Christie says. "But no matter how many times he comes here, the voters know that come November 4, they would be stuck with Jon Corzine. Obama is not moving into the State House." If Corzine is permitted to stay, though, he may have Obama to thank.
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