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Economy Looms Over New Jersey Race

By Halbfinger & Kocieniewski, New York Times - October 29, 2009

In the final leg of New Jersey’s unpredictable governor’s race, both candidates are desperately casting about for ways to save the state from financial doom as they confront the dark economic reality that will severely restrict the winner of Tuesday’s voting.

The Democratic governor, Jon S. Corzine, says he may revive his plan to lease the New Jersey Turnpike to raise cash — a proposal that he abandoned last year in the face of intense opposition from lawmakers and voters.

His Republican challenger, Christopher J. Christie, retreating from a key campaign promise, says he can no longer fully restore property tax breaks for homeowners, given the uncertainty of the state’s finances.

In separate interviews in recent days with The New York Times, the two rivals made no apologies for the ugly tone of the campaign, offered markedly different visions for how to shape the state’s highest court, complained about their depictions in each other’s commercials, and made it clear that they shared little mutual respect or admiration.

Mr. Corzine said he rued having supported Mr. Christie’s nomination for United States attorney when he was a senator because, he contended, Mr. Christie politicized the job and used it as a launching pad. “New information, new conclusion,” he said.

Mr. Christie, somewhat theatrically, struggled for several moments to name three things the governor had done right. “Let me think,” he said. “Um ... I would probably say I think over all his prosecutorial appointments have been good.”

Mr. Corzine seemed almost resentful that he was not more appreciated by voters or the news media, citing unsung accomplishments like the passage of a civil unions law, paid family leave and the abolition of the death penalty.

“It’s like in the water that somehow or another we didn’t do some of these things,” he said, adding: “Go through the record. May not be pretty, but we got it done.”

Mr. Corzine and Mr. Christie have been battling for nearly 10 months in an expensive and sometimes personal contest that has attracted national interest; the nation’s only other governor’s race is in Virginia . Mr. Corzine is ahead in some polls and Mr. Christie in others, though many voters say they still may change their minds. A third-party candidate, Christopher J. Daggett, is far behind but could help tip the race in either direction.

With 39 governor’s races in 2010, the outcome in New Jersey may hold a lesson about campaigning during hard times: whether it is better to play down the trouble one’s state has fallen into, or to soft-sell the pain it will take to emerge from it.

Mr. Corzine accuses Mr. Christie of falsely claiming that jobs and residents have fled the state and says the news media have unfairly portrayed New Jersey as “worse than other places.” He ticks off positive indicators: rising median incomes, falling numbers of the uninsured and rising test scores. “There are a lot of good things,” he said.

Yet, he acknowledged the obvious: “There’s a lot of people hurting out here,” he said. “A lot of people who didn’t expect to be hurting.”

He added, “I’m empathetic with that.”

Mr. Christie, who says New Jersey is caught in “negative momentum” economically, focuses almost exclusively on the state’s strapped middle class, pledging to force concessions from state employee unions and to bring “parental supervision” to an overspending Legislature, without ever precisely saying how.

“I think it’s being responsible,” he says about his lack of specifics. “I’m not setting up expectations that I can’t meet.”

Regarding property tax rebates, Mr. Christie now says he cannot fully restore them — though his commercials omit this qualifier — and that he will send back the money only “on a sliding scale depending on what the economic conditions were.” He explained the turnabout by saying he was “prioritizing out of a set of bad choices.”

Referring to looming deficits, he added, “It’s not like I can click my heels and say, ‘Make the bad stuff go away.’ ”

The change is one of several recent reversals. Mr. Christie now also disavows a promise, made in a primary-season debate, to roll back a sales tax increase. He has backed away from a pledge to avoid using “one-shot” revenues to close the budget deficit. And he is now deferring until later in his term plans to eliminate a business tax surcharge, cut income taxes across the board, identify a permanent financing source for open-space preservation and restore higher-education financing to 2002 levels.

His biggest surviving pledge is to roll back Mr. Corzine’s tax increase on people making more than $400,000 a year.

While Mr. Corzine wears his spending priorities on his sleeve — education and the social “safety net” — Mr. Christie’s are more difficult to pin down.

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