Middletown, N.J.–On a rainy Friday afternoon, more than 200 people gather in a tightly packed room at Brookdale Community College. Their nominal purpose is to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester. But it’s clear from the number of combat veterans present that John McCain–who has come to give a speech endorsing Forrester–has drawn much of the crowd. One could almost be forgiven the thought that it is a McCain event.
Indeed, Doug Forrester’s biggest obstacle to victory on November 8 may be his lack of visibility. Most voters who have watched the debates between Forrester and Democratic candidate Jon Corzine (who is currently a U.S. senator) say that Forrester has outperformed his rival. But in a recent poll, only 39 percent of New Jersey residents said they’d even heard of the most recent debate. And while figures such as McCain stir up momentary enthusiasm, they have not created momentum for Forrester–the race has remained deadlocked. Even the weekend papers that tout McCain’s appearance, along with a visit for Corzine from Hillary Clinton, barely mention the candidates these famous politicians are backing.
It has been eight years since New Jersey elected a Republican governor, and even longer since the state’s name wasn’t synonymous with political corruption. It is widely agreed that the Garden State’s ethical decay has only accelerated over the past decade. When voters elect a replacement for the disgraced Jim McGreevey, they will decide whether to give the Democrats another chance–and, although the outcome is far from certain, there is a strong possibility that they will not.
“Jon Corzine has had his chance,” Doug Forrester tells me. “He’s been in office now for five years. If he hasn’t yet found time to address the issues most important to our state, he’s never going to.”
Forrester has built his campaign around two main proposals. To guard against corruption, he would create an ombudsman post within the attorney general’s office. He also thinks that the election of a Republican would itself help stem the tide of corruption: “By electing someone not part of the state Democratic machine, we can take back the power of government from the political bosses who use public resources for their own gain.” The unique power of the New Jersey governorship suggests that, if Forrester wins, he will be well placed to fulfill that promise. The governor is New Jersey’s only official–aside from its two senators–who is elected statewide; and he appoints all judges and all 21 county prosecutors. He also has significant influence on state budgets.
The second proposal is tax reform. Polls show property taxes to be the issue voters are most concerned about. Forrester has proposed a 30 percent property-tax cut. Corzine, too, has spoken of changing property-tax laws, but only in vague generalities. That difference should be clear to anyone driving along the New Jersey Turnpike. Heading north, motorists are greeted by campaign billboards for each candidate. On the right side of the road is the Forrester ad, which reads, “Guaranteed 30 percent property tax cut.” A little farther up, and to the left, is a Corzine billboard. It shows the senator resting his chin on his right hand and reads, “Quiet strength. Strong leadership.”
Polls show Forrester trailing Corzine by only a few percentage points. In addition, all available data put Corzine below the important 50 percent mark. With polls finding anywhere from 13 to 35 percent of voters undecided, it’s clear that Forrester has an opportunity to close the gap.
There are further reasons to think Corzine is in a vulnerable position. He won his 2000 election to the Senate by only three percentage points–and only after spending more money than any Senate candidate in history. And the Republican party seems to be making a comeback here. In the 2004 election, the gap between Bush and his Democratic opponent was six points smaller than it had been in 2000. The Almanac of American Politics has described New Jersey as “on the verge of being a competitive state” again.
Forrester has received support from major figures in the Republican party. Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Florida senator Mel Martinez–as well as McCain–have all stumped in Forrester’s behalf. After the Giuliani appearance, the New York Times described Forrester as “clearly buoyed by his companion as well as a surge in recent opinion polls.”
Despite the support of leading Republicans, Forrester is not a traditional conservative. He embraces the free market, has promised a statewide ban on public funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, and favors ending the ban on assault rifles; but he also proposes banning the sale of 50-caliber weapons, and is a supporter of legal abortion. Former Republican governor and 9/11 Commission co-chairman Thomas Kean appears in a TV ad for Forrester, telling viewers, “He’s a moderate. He supports a woman’s right to choose.” Forrester also accepted the endorsement of the group Republican Majority for Choice.
Despite Forrester’s distance from President Bush on abortion and other issues, Jon Corzine and the state Democratic party are trying to benefit from the president’s sagging approval ratings by tying him to Forrester. Corzine is running ads that damn Forrester as “President Bush’s choice.” Interim governor Dick Codey publicly dared Forrester to campaign with the president. (Forrester’s camp says he has no plans to do so.) When I ask Forrester whether accepting support from Republicans close to the White House hurts his campaign, he says, “Corzine is trying to distract people but I’m not going to let him do it. I’m going to stay focused.”
Corzine may be focusing his campaign on Bush rather than Forrester because he trails Forrester on so many issues. According to recent polling data, Forrester has a solid lead on the property-tax issue, and enjoys a ten-point edge on addressing corruption. Corzine does lead in one area: His 41 percent disapproval rating is ten points higher than Forrester’s.
Ultimately, the theme of removing corruption from state government may be Forrester’s greatest strength. At the community college, Forrester hits that theme head on: “It is this issue of corruption that has really risen to the top of the heap in terms of concern of people and that is just so discouraging in itself. How bad do things have to be when the average person on the street believes that corruption and integrity in government is more important than education, or health care, or environmental quality? Something is wrong in New Jersey.”
Doug Forrester still has a long way to go before he can be assured of victory. But with a wealth of campaign cash, support from high-profile officeholders, and the widespread sense that something is indeed wrong in New Jersey, the door is far from closed.
–Eric Pfeiffer reports for National Review Online.