Republican challenger Christopher Christie and incumbent Governor Jon Corzine squared off in the first of two televised debates in the New Jersey governor’s race last night. The debate was made all the more important by a series of polls released Wednesday and Thursday that showed Corzine narrowing Christie’s lead from ten points to the single-digits. Christie needed to turn in a good performance, and turn the spotlight back on Corzine’s record, to stem his losses in surveys taken since last month.
Right from the first question, Christie went after Corzine’s record on taxes and state spending. In response to a question on how his budget numbers add up, Christie said that he would cut state spending. He said that simply holding state budget growth to the rate of inflation would have resulted in $35 billion less in taxes over the last eight years. And he accused Corzine and Daggett of planning to raise taxes by billions more.
“There’s a clear distinction between me and my two opponents in race. Over the past weeks, each of them has made it clear they will raise taxes,” Christie said. “New Jersey is the highest taxed state in nation. New Jerseyans are suffocating under this tax burden and we can’t continue to have it.”
Asked what taxes he would consider raising, Corzine said flatly that the he would not take a no tax pledge. “Raising taxes is a last resort for me. But you have a constitutional responsibility to balance the budget.” That opened the door for Christie to deliver one of the better zingers of the night.
“If Jon Corzine says raising taxes is a last resort, you can be[t] that’s a resort he’s going to be checking into.”
Taxes were a theme Christie would return to often. Christie took every opportunity to point out that Corzine has raised taxes, “$9 billion in four years.” He lamented New Jersey’s unemployment rate, which at 9.7% is the highest in the Northeast, blaming it on Corzine’s tax policies. He compared New Jersey’s top tax rate, 10.7%, to neighboring states like Pennsylvania, saying that lower taxes across the border are driving businesses and residents out of New Jersey.
Corzine was on the defensive all night. He tried to make the case that New Jersey’s economy is not as bad as Christie claims on the campaign trail. He defended his record on taxes, accusing Christie of failing to offer a specific proposal for closing the state’s $8 billion dollar budget gap. “What I think needs to be asked by the public is what is the program that Mr. Christie has?” Corzine said.
And despite Christie’s recitation of the state’s dubious leadership in the regional economic woes, Corzine said that his administration is “doing more than any other state” to combat the recession.
“We have a school-construction plan that is putting people back to work. We have a clean energy program that is unmatched in the country. We are putting people back to work on infrastructure,” he said.
Chris Daggett, a former Republican running as an Independent, positioned himself between the major party candidates, alternately taking shots at both. He pitched his plan for a 25% cut in property taxes coupled with an “expansion” of the state’s sales tax to services such as lawyers’ and consultants’ fees. Christie called that formulation “tricky language.” “His hand is in your pocket,” Christie said.
On balance, Daggett sided more with Corzine against Christie, revealing his campaign to be a real danger to Republican efforts to take the governor’s mansion in New Jersey’s independent-heavy electorate.
On non-economic issues, the candidates drew clear distinctions on same-sex marriage, with Corzine pledging to sign a proposed law to recognize such marriages in the state. Christie said he would not sign the measure. On abortion, Corzine said that he absolutely supported Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion. Christie expressed support for abortion restrictions like parental notification and stressed abstinence education as a means to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
But the economy and taxes dominated the discussion, as would be expected in a national economic slowdown. Polls show that roughly half of New Jersey voters mention taxes as their top issue of concern. Another 20% rate jobs as the top issue. Those are difficult numbers for an incumbent to work with in a recession, and Christie was determined to press his campaign’s advantage on pocketbook issues.
In a New York Times profile published yesterday, Christie revealed his unorthodox debate preparation strategy. A fan of Bruce Springsteen, Christie said he would forgo cramming and mock debate sessions to take in his 121st Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium. Aides reportedly tried to dissuade him, but they might want to reconsider. Christie’s relaxed and feisty performance showed he was well prepared.