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Obama in New Jersey: Trying to Rescue Corzine

By Michael Scherer, Time - October 21, 2009

With less than two weeks until election day, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine could really use some of what President Barack Obama has — not just the charisma, but also the credibility, the aura of a leader who can shake up politics as usual. If one thing is clear in New Jersey, it's that voters are fed up with the status quo.

So on Wednesday, Obama is visiting the Garden State to try to rub some of his political magic off on Corzine at a Hackensack campaign rally, the second such presidential visit this year. Voters can expect to hear more of what they heard from Obama back in July, a recasting of Corzine from the Goldman Sachs executive and troubled governor to the reformist crusader who will heal the state's corruption woes. "Jon Corzine didn't run for this office on the promise that change would be easy," Obama said then. "This isn't somebody who's here because of some special interest or political machine." (See pictures of Cory Booker, Newark's mayor.)

The question is whether or not the Obama brand, which has been tarnished in recent months, is strong enough to brighten the hopes of the embattled governor. A recent poll by the New York Times found that 51% of state residents disapproved of how Corzine was handling corruption in the state. Even worse, 77% of state residents said that corruption would either increase or stay the same if Corzine was re-elected. Add to that the fact that Corzine's claim to fame is that he once ran Goldman Sachs, the recently bailed-out bank, which has attracted widespread scorn for its near record profits this year.

"With Corzine there is a sense of resignation, and a feeling that there are a lot of unfulfilled promises," explains Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "He has not changed the way business is done in Trenton." See pictures of Barack Obama's nation of hope.

To date, neither Corzine nor his Republican challenger, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, have distinguished themselves. The tone has been relentlessly negative, with Christie accusing Corzine of being an enabler of the corruption that has long stained the state's politics and this summer resulted in the arrests of numerous local and state public officials. Corzine, who is sinking an estimated $25 million of his own money into the campaign, has accused Christie of politicizing the attorney's office and has attacked Christie with one ad that not so subtly makes light of his generous girth; the unflattering video is matched with the claim that the former U.S. Attorney "threw his weight around" to get out of traffic tickets.

The campaign has also been marked by regular revelations that highlight the sometimes seamy world of New Jersey politics. On Tuesday, the New York Times revealed that a former deputy of Christie's at the U.S. Attorney's office may have used her position twice in improper ways to help the challenger's bid. Further complicating matters, the aide, Michele Brown — who has vehemently denied doing anything wrong — had received a $46,000 personal loan from Christie.

Corzine, meanwhile, has been struggling with a massive corruption sweep by federal prosecutors that included the arrests of three New Jersey mayors, and the resignation of a Corzine aide after federal agents raided his home. More recently, Corzine has fended off allegations that he was buying support by donating $25,000 from his charitable foundation to the head of the state's black ministers council, Reginald Jackson, just months before Jackson endorsed the sitting governor. See 10 elections that changed America.

If anything, the chaotic race has so far been helping the incumbent. When Obama last came to New Jersey, polls showed Corzine trailing Christie by as many as 10 points. Polls now show the race to be a dead heat. A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found that 72% of voters who support Obama now support Corzine, up from just 66% a month ago. Corzine has also appeared to be benefiting from a small but growing level of support for the independent candidate Christopher Daggett, who seems to be taking anti-incumbent voters from Christie.

Back in Washington, the Democratic National Committee is also stepping up its backing of Corzine, with roughly $3 million in aid, along with frequent e-mails to organize support from those on Obama's presidential campaign e-mail list. "We're doing in New Jersey what has been asked of us," said Brad Woodhouse, a committee spokesman. "And we are happy to do so."

At the White House, advisers are watching the New Jersey race closely, especially now that Democrats are seeing their hopes wane in the other major governor's race this year, in Virginia. New Jersey's outcome may not only be seen nationally as a referendum on Obama's first 10 months in office, but also as a test of how well the grassroots machine that Obama built up in 2008 can be mobilized in off years. See pictures of 60 years of election night drama.

The White House is at the same time trying to use the appearance with Corzine as another opportunity to focus on its own central domestic message: the need for more jobs. "President Obama will campaign on behalf of candidates, like Governor Corzine, who share the President's commitment to implementing the Recovery Act, creating jobs and laying a new foundation for America's long-term economic strength," explains Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

But don't expect Obama to dwell much on the result of the New Jersey race after the Nov. 3 elections. The state's political institutions are in too much turmoil. And as it stands, Obama and his advisers are having enough trouble trying to change the system in Washington.

See the screwups of Campaign '08.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

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