Chris Christie needed a win. On Thursday night, he got one.
Christie, the New Jersey Republican challenging incumbent Democratic governor Jon Corzine, has seemed aimless in recent weeks, fading in the polls just as this tight gubernatorial race enters its final stretch. In early August, a Monmouth/Gannett poll showed Christie ahead by 14 points; this week, the same poll showed him ahead by just three. Wednesday’s Quinnipiac poll also showed Christie only slightly ahead, 43 percent to 39 percent. In July, Quinnipiac had Christie besting Corzine by 13 points.
The catalog of reasons for Christie’s drop is as long as a Bruce Springsteen set list. The main factor is this: Instead of using its candidate’s strong record as a former United States attorney as a backdrop for a focused anti-corruption crusade, the Christie campaign has become tangled in the usual rough-and-tumble of Jersey politics. Corzine has tagged Christie with ethical questions on everything from his personal finances to whether he got too friendly with Karl Rove before running for governor. Even Christie’s heavyset frame has become a punching bag in recent ads, with Corzine accusing him of throwing “his weight around” to get out of parking tickets.
Voters have more important worries. Whether it’s Corzine or Christie in the governor’s mansion come January, Jersey faces an $8 billion budget gap next year, as well as the country’s third-highest debt load, according to the state’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services.
As he stood at a podium in a chilly New Jersey television studio on Thursday, minutes before the first of the campaign’s three debates began, Christie knew that if he wanted to reestablish a commanding — or even solid — lead, he’d need a commanding performance. Bickering with Corzine (and independent candidate Christopher Daggett) over minutiae only of interest to the Trenton politicos sitting beyond the studio’s klieg lights would not be enough. He needed to present his vision for the Garden State compellingly.
And he did. Corzine was steady, but Christie stayed on offense, pressing the incumbent on his “suffocating” tax policies and “shameful” campaign tactics. When Corzine responded that raising taxes is his “last resort,” Christie retorted that “if Jon Corzine says it’s a last resort, it’s a resort he’ll be checking into.” Even Corzine grinned.
Republicans nationwide have been watching this race for months, hoping that Christie would pull out a win. The New Jersey race, like Bob McDonnell’s campaign in Virginia, is a harbinger for the GOP. If Christie can pull an upset come November, winning the governor’s seat in a deep-blue northeastern state, excitement for the GOP’s chances in the 2010 midterm elections will build.
After the debate, NRO asked Christie about what conservatives around America, who may just be tuning into the race now, should know about him and his message. “I’m going to cut spending and I’m going to cut taxes across the board for everyone and for small business. We’re going to return New Jersey to being an economic engine again, with lower taxes, lower spending, and smaller and smarter government,” says Christie. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Is this a message voters on the trail want to hear? “You saw that question [during the debate] where they strung together [a video question of] five people talking about how every kind of tax is too high in New Jersey,” says Christie. “That’s what people are feeling, because we’re the [state with the highest tax burden] in America.”
Christie still faces a punishing barrage from Corzine. Dotting billboards around Trenton, and across the Garden State, are pictures of Christie placed next to pictures of George W. Bush. Others show Corzine in a soft glow next to President Obama. Knowing that they don’t have much of a fiscal record to stand on, Corzine’s camp is hoping that by tethering themselves to Obama, and Christie to Bush, they can eke out a victory. “The Bush Republicans that are still wandering around Washington, D.C., the ultra-Right, is salivating over the fact that they’re trying to get a Republican governor in the state of New Jersey,” Loretta Weinberg, Corzine’s running mate and a state senator, tells NRO. “They’re salivating over the idea that this will send a message to our new, young president in Washington. And I’m here to tell you, along with Jon Corzine, that that’s not going to happen.”
Perhaps, but 2009 is not 2008, nor 2006. One person who can attest to that is Tom Kean Jr., the New Jersey Republican and state senator who, tarred by his association to Bush, lost his run for the U.S. Senate three years ago. He tells NRO that Corzine’s tactics won’t work. “There’s a stark contrast here,” says Kean. “Look at what Jon Corzine hasn’t done during his last four years as governor. He has not solved the affordability crisis, he’s made it worse. He has not kept the promises he made when he took office. Chris Christie has a vision, and he also has a record over the last seven years as an independent prosecutor who brought Republicans and Democrats to justice.”
Christie hammered Corzine on charter schools, urging reform and vouchers for students. He spoke about New Jersey’s high estate taxes and his plans for cutting them. He defended marriage, reiterating his belief that it is a bond between a man and a woman. He expressed caution about legalizing medicinal marijuana, which Corzine supports, without proper “safeguards.” He took on Corzine’s connections to various officials around New Jersey accused of corruption — including former Bergen County Democratic chairman Joseph Ferriero, to whom Corzine has given over $500,000 in political contributions in recent years. He pushed back against Corzine’s charges about his personal finances, saying that if he is elected, he will put all of his assets in a blind trust. Then he took Corzine to the woodshed for his own involvement with a hedge fund while in the governor’s office. When Corzine continued to defend his record, Christie asked bemusedly, “Is he not living here?”
“People are leaving this state in droves, business are leaving this state in droves and taking their jobs with them,” said Christie. “That’s why we have the worst unemployment rate in 33 years.” Then, during the debate’s closing minutes, Christie alluded to Corzine’s Obama-focused strategy, saying that “hope can be real again,” and that he “wanted to restore hope, faith, and trust in government.”
We’ll see if Christie’s strong night bolsters his poll numbers. But after months of floundering and sniping, the New Jersey Republican got his groove back on Thursday, showing a bit of that prosecutorial flair that has been absent from much of his campaign. With a month till election day, it’s about time.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.