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Dead Heat in New Jersey Governor’s Race

LIVINGSTON, N.J. - When Gov. Jon Corzine began his bid for a second term in January, public opinion polls showed voters in recession-racked New Jersey didn't like him and weren't going to vote for him.

Two weeks before the election, polls show voters still don't like Corzine but may return him to office anyway.

National political parties are watching New Jersey - the only governor's race this year other than Virginia's - for clues to how next year's congressional elections might go. Yet, here in the state, New Jersey's economic devastation is overshadowing other issues as voters demand to know who's at fault and what can be done about it.

Four independent polls show Corzine is in a dead heat with Republican Christopher Christie, a former U.S. attorney. That improvement could give Democrats a chance to hang onto the governorship despite voter fury over New Jersey's high unemployment and even higher taxes.

Corzine is "struggling back," says Peter Woolley, director of the Public Mind poll at Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. Also in the race is independent Christopher Daggett, a former environmental regulator. The three will meet in a debate Friday in Wayne.

Until now, voters who are angry about the state's economic situation appear to have blamed Corzine, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs who served in the Senate before running for governor in 2005. He came into office pledging to relieve property tax pain. New Jersey has the nation's highest average annual property taxes: Residents pay an average of $7,045 annually, according to data compiled by the Asbury Park Press.

Recession has driven the state's unemployment rate up to 9.7%, a 32-year high, and created a projected $8 billion deficit for the next budget year. Income tax revenue, which used to provide property tax rebates, has plunged. Corzine has ended most rebates, raised the sales tax and raised income taxes on the state's wealthiest residents.

"Corzine has made a mess of things," Jim Daniels, a real estate investor, said after hearing Christie speak last month in Livingston, a wealthy northern suburb. He plans to vote for Christie. "Not change for the sake of change. I want someone who can reverse the situation."

Focusing on social issues

Christie, 47, who was the state's federal prosecutor for seven years, has tried to assure voters he'll solve the state's fiscal crisis, asserting he'll increase property tax rebates and cut income tax rates, but he has resisted explaining how. Instead, he urges voters to fire Corzine.

"In the end, it's about leadership," he said in Livingston. "This is our home, and it's time for us to take it back."

Corzine, 62, has run a barrage of ads slamming Christie over a $46,000 loan he gave to a subordinate without reporting it on his taxes and accusing him of escaping traffic violations by "throwing his weight around." Christie and his campaign say that phrase is a dig at the Republican's physical size.

Corzine also has tried to focus on social issues he hopes will win back Democrats. He has criticized Christie's proposal to let insurance companies sell cheaper "no-frills" policies, saying it would end coverage of mammograms. "These issues, they set up clear differences and choices," Corzine said at an event promoting a new paid-family-leave law. "And I would much prefer being on the side that I'm on."

What may help Corzine more than a surefire economic plan are traditional political advantages: He's an incumbent, a Democrat in a state that hasn't elected a Republican to statewide office since 1997, and a millionaire.

The Republican strategy "is let Corzine sink on his own weight," Woolley says. "But Corzine is sinking down onto a very strong Democratic base."

Corzine has spent nearly $17 million on the race - almost all of it his own money - compared with less than $6 million for Christie, who is accepting public matching funds and the spending limits that go with them.

Since Oct. 1, Corzine has outspent his opponent 2 to 1 on ads, according to TNS Media Intelligence, which tracks political ad spending.

Getting a lift from Obama

President Obama, who campaigned for Corzine in July and is due to return before the election, is so popular in New Jersey that the Democrat's campaign has put up billboards of the two men side by side "as if Corzine is Obama's running mate," says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "That's generating, if not excitement, at least a sense of duty among urban voters."

Pollsters including Woolley point out that while Corzine is supported by about three-quarters of Democrats in the most recent independent polls, that's far fewer than he needs to win in a state with a large number of independents.

"Even if you're a diehard Democrat, you aren't real fired up about going to cast your ballot for Jon Corzine," says Mike Schrimpf of the Republican Governors Association, which has spent $5 million on anti-Corzine ads.

"If the Democratic get-out-the-vote operation does what it has been doing in the past, they should pull it out," says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

Given the recession, he points out, "It's really hard to be a popular incumbent today, no matter what state you're in."

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