LIVINGSTON, N.J. — When Gov. Jon Corzine began his bid for a second term in January, public opinion polls showed voters in recession-racked New Jersey didn’t like him and weren’t going to vote for him.
Two weeks before the election, polls show voters still don’t like Corzine but may return him to office anyway.
National political parties are watching New Jersey — the only governor’s race this year other than Virginia’s — for clues to how next year’s congressional elections might go. Yet, here in the state, New Jersey’s economic devastation is overshadowing other issues as voters demand to know who’s at fault and what can be done about it.
Four independent polls show Corzine is in a dead heat with Republican Christopher Christie, a former U.S. attorney [under
ChimpyGeorge W. Bush and Karl Rove]. That improvement could give Democrats a chance to hang onto the governorship despite voter fury over New Jersey’s high unemployment and even higher taxes.
Corzine is “struggling back,” says Peter Woolley, director of the Public Mind poll at Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. Also in the race is independent Christopher Daggett, a former environmental regulator. The three will meet in a debate Friday in Wayne.
Until now, voters who are angry about the state’s economic situation appear to have blamed Corzine, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs who served in the Senate before running for governor in 2005.
Recession has driven the state’s unemployment rate up to 9.7%, a 32-year high, and created a projected $8 billion deficit for the next budget year. Income tax revenue, which used to provide property tax rebates, has plunged. Corzine has ended most rebates, raised the sales tax and raised income taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.
Christie, 47, who was the state’s federal prosecutor for seven years, has tried to assure voters he’ll solve the state’s fiscal crisis, asserting he’ll increase property tax rebates and cut income tax rates, but he has resisted explaining how. Instead, he urges voters to fire Corzine.
Corzine, 62, has run a barrage of ads slamming Christie over a $46,000 loan he gave to a subordinate without reporting it on his taxes and accusing him of escaping traffic violations by “throwing his weight around.” Christie and his campaign say that phrase is a dig at the Republican’s physical size.
Corzine also has tried to focus on social issues he hopes will win back Democrats. He has criticized Christie’s proposal to let insurance companies sell cheaper “no-frills” policies, saying it would end coverage of mammograms.
President Obama, who campaigned for Corzine in July and is due to return before the election, is so popular in New Jersey that the Democrat’s campaign has put up billboards of the two men side by side “as if Corzine is Obama’s running mate,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “That’s generating, if not excitement, at least a sense of duty among urban voters.”