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Daggett's Debate Splash

Few independent candidates have qualified for matching funds in a New Jersey gubernatorial race. None has ever gotten more than 5 percent of the vote in an election. But after a breakthrough performance in Thursday's first televised debate, Chris Daggett may have the major party nominees rethinking their strategy heading into the final 30 days of the race.

That may be more true for Republican Chris Christie than the incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. The very first question had Christie on the defensive and facing a tag-team assault from his rivals. NJN's Michael Aron asked Christie how he could promise to cut taxes and surcharges while spending more on education and transportation.

Consider Corzine's first statement in the debate, when responding to Christie's answer. "Let me first of all compliment Mr. Daggett. He has a plan," he said, calling Christie's promises a "fantasy." Daggett was next. "I agree that there's been no plan put forward by Mr. Christie," he said. By the end of the debate, both major party nominees had gone out of their way to state where they agreed with Daggett.

It wasn't just policy. Daggett also showed some superiority in style. While Corzine and Christie had canned responses ready for the anticipated attacks, Daggett seemed better prepared with TV-friendly soundbites, and was the only participant to draw much reaction from the studio audience. Amid a prickly conflict on taxes between the Democrat and the Republican, Daggett deadpanned: "I'm getting squeezed here in the middle." That positioning also played to his advantage; playing to political convention, viewers saw Corzine on the left, Christie on the right, and Daggett smack in the center.

But what may have been the most stinging line came when he criticized Christie's lack of specificity. "It's easy to criticize when you have no plan of your own. The tooth fairy's not going to solve this problem."

It wasn't a cakewalk for Corzine at all. Though he strongly defended his record, and countered what he said were Christie's vague plans with his tough choices, ultimately he has to defend a record that includes rising unemployment and higher taxes. His answers included repeated mentions of President Obama, and the historic nature of the economic crisis. Voters haven't responded to those arguments yet, as the Democrat is stuck in the 30s in most polls.

But with polls showing Christie's numbers falling, the Republican appears to be in a bind. The lack of a major media market all to its own has always presented serious hurdles for any challenger in New Jersey. Voters who depend on local television news for information about the race don't see much coverage from the New York or Philadelphia stations that come into New Jersey homes. Yes, the state has a generous matching funds program. But entering into that program means you face a spending cap -- a serious handicap if a rival, like Corzine, self-funds.

And now, not only can't Christie match Corzine's spending on television ads. He may have to devote more time responding to a new, equally-funded rival.

It remains to be seen just what the impact of the debate will be. It's unlikely the viewership was all that high -- it aired on public television, on network television's biggest night. Still, Daggett will likely see a free media boom that is just what he needs to fuel his campaign. Initial media reports praised Daggett's performance, even as they acknowledged his long odds. The New York Times wrote that the "unassuming" Daggett "had the most to gain from the night, and seemed to make much of the opportunity." A Newark Star-Ledger columnist called him the "decisive winner."

Up to this point, his biggest splash was a comedic television ad that had a limited buy behind it. Can he ever be more than a spoiler? Daggett says yes. "I don't have to get 50 percent plus one," he said. Just 34 percent in a split race. He's not there yet. But with just a month until Election Day, he could be more of a factor than one might have thought.