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NORTH BERGEN, N.J. – Jon Corzine – the bearded, gray-haired, former Wall Street titan running for his second term as New Jersey's Democratic governor – would never be confused with the toothy-smiled, broad-shouldered, handshake-a-second political hunks who look like they were cloned to run for public office. But Sunday morning as Corzine looked out at room filled with nearly a thousand Latino women, he discovered his inner Bill Clinton.
"I've never seen so many good-looking women in one spot in my life," he gushed. "You are beautiful on a Sunday morning."
The energize-the-Democratic-base breakfast, which featured Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis ("Jon Corzine, he's the greatest," she burbled), was the kickoff of a week in which the White House will lavish more affection on Corzine than on wavering senators in the health-care fight.
When it comes to deploying Air Force One and turning on the White House political machine on behalf of candidates like Corzine, incumbent presidents behave exactly like bankers who only lend their umbrellas when the sun is shining.
With Democrat Creigh Deeds falling increasingly behind in the open-seat Virginia governor's race, Corzine has become the Obama team's best hope for post-election bragging rights. (Governor's races in odd-numbered years have shown little predictive power for future elections, but a double Democratic wipeout in New Jersey and Virginia would inevitably create a high-decibel "Obama in trouble" chorus). In short, the better Corzine is doing, the more eager the White House is to lend its full prestige to guarantee victory.
Six weeks ago, it was Corzine who needed help, even though (thanks to his nine-digit personal wealth) he was always going to outspend his Republican challenger by a margin of about four-to-one. With the state unemployment rate pushing 10 percent and property taxes turning homeowners in leafy suburbs into pitch-fork-wielding militants, Corzine looked like the successor to Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, who lost his 1993 reelection bid over taxes. Republican Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, led in every published poll (sometimes by double-digit margins) from the time he won the GOP nomination in early June until two weeks ago. The polls have been knotted since then, as the lead bounces around from survey to survey, with all the results falling within the margin of error.
Corzine (whose unfavorable ratings have been over 50 percent in every Quinnipiac University poll since July) has fought his way back to even footing the old-fashioned way – by making Christie almost as unpopular as he is.
"Any re-election campaign ought to be a referendum on the incumbent," said Mickey Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But this one is about Christie as much as it is about Corzine." With Corzine attack ads dominating the airwaves in New York and Philadelphia (New Jersey lacks its own commercial TV station, so ad rates are particularly expensive), Christie's negative ratings have doubled (to the current 40 percent) in the Quinnipiac surveys. A typical heavy-handed Corzine spot, now being broadcast, accuses Christie of supporting "the failed Bush economics," a constitutional amendment banning abortion, "siding with the gun lobby" and opposing stem-cell research and funding for preschool education. All this within 30 seconds.
Even Republican insiders admit that the Christie campaign has been erratic in its response to the fusillade from the free-spending governor. Rather than using his comparatively limited ad budget to stress his strongest issue – the Republican Holy Grail of lower taxes – Christie has been thrown off his message by trying to respond to the Corzine attacks. The Republican ran ads talking about his mother's battle with breast cancer to rebut Corzine's contention that he wanted to eliminate state-mandated insurance coverage for mammograms. There is a whiny tone to Christie's current commercial as the candidate speaks to the camera to complain that his opponent's strategy is: "Spend enough on negative ads and maybe we'll ignore the governor's record of high taxes, tremendous debt and failed leadership. But we know better."
The campaign's last televised debate was held Friday night – and was only shown live on the Internet. (There were rebroadcasts during the weekend on New York and Philadelphia television). When only a small percentage of voters actually watch a debate, the subsequent TV sound bites and the newspaper articles are what matter politically. So guess what heavyweight issue dominated the post-debate news?
Belatedly responding to a gut-punch Corzine TV ad charging that Christie "threw his weight around," the stocky Republican declared, "Let me let you all in on a little secret: In case you haven't noticed in the last eight years I've been in public life, I'm slightly overweight. . . . I've struggled with my weight for a good part of my life, as many of you have in this audience and people at home. I don't know what that has to do with being governor of New Jersey."
The problem for Christie is that few elections have ever been won in the brass-knuckle state of New Jersey by claiming that your opponent has violated the Marquess of Queensberry rules of fair campaigning. There is a prevalent sense that this was Christie's election to win – and he failed to seize the moment and now all the momentum is drifting the other way. As a veteran national Republican consultant put it – and the harshness of his assessment is why he refused to have his name used – "Christie is running the worst campaign I've ever seen. Everyone knows that there's a tax revolt going on except the Christie campaign. Instead, he wasted a month talking about mammograms."
If ever there were an election that, in theory, seemed tailor-made for a credible independent candidate, it is the lesser-of-two-evils New Jersey gubernatorial race. This is where Chris Daggett comes in, as a former state environmental official and moderate Republican who voted for Obama in 2008. Originally running as a quixotic crusader against politics-as-usual in Trenton, Daggett has gained credibility with strong debate performances and the surprise endorsement by the Newark Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey. Running in the low double digits in virtually all the polls, Daggett said in an interview, "I share the sentiment that the polls do not capture the extent of the voter anger out there at the two parties."
Even with a generous state program that matches campaign donations, Daggett will end up spending less than $2 million. Corzine, in contrast, is expected to exceed the $40 million mark. Daggett's maverick admaker, Bill Hillsman (who helped elect former wrestler Jesse Ventura as independent governor of Minnesota in 1998), is working on a new television ad that will air in the final days of the race. The first and only Daggett commercial depicted Corzine as detached and Christie as an angry prosecutor.
"In Ventura's race, voters had to take a chance because they weren't sure that he could do the job," Hillsman said. "Daggett is the mirror opposite. He doesn't have the name ID or the recognition. But no one doubts his ability to do the job."
Aided by a superior Democratic get-out-the-vote drive, Corzine is now widely expected to prevail over Christie and Daggett after a campaign that embodies the sports concept of winning ugly. The post-election Obama talking points will probably stress the Democratic Party's resilience in New Jersey. And while the president himself may deserve a sliver of the credit, the Obama campaign's 2008 mantra of hope will have absolutely no connection with anything that will happen in the cynical precincts of New Jersey politics.
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