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A Hook to Hang Your Hat On

That’s a phrase I keep coming back to during this year’s gubernatorial race. And last night’s televised debate between Chris Christie and Steve Lonegan – who are vying for the Republican nomination for New Jersey Governor – only increased my sense that at least one candidate is not giving voters a hook to hang their hats on.

It’s clear from every poll in the past year, that most voters in New Jersey are disinclined to give Governor Jon Corzine another four years on the job. In the Republican field, Chris Christie has been positioning himself as the most electable contender in a state that trends solidly Democratic. Based on his campaign rhetoric, his main qualification appears to be that he showed how “tough” he can be as U.S. Attorney and he will be equally “tough” as governor.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make many voters – even Republican primary voters who are desperate for a general election win – feel comfortable enough to support him. He needs to give them a commitment on at least one salient issue – with salient being the key word – so they can say to their friends, “I’m voting for Christie because he’s going to fix X.” In other words, he needs to give voters a hook to hang their hats on.

The first question in last night’s debate offered the perfect opportunity. It was about property taxes, which is New Jersey voters’ #1 concern by far. Unfortunately, both candidates avoided offering specifics on how they would bring down property taxes. Basically, they said would do all sorts of other things right, e.g. cut spending, etc. This, we are led to believe, would somehow lead school districts and local governments to lower their tax rates. That may be so, but you’ve got to connect the dots to convince voters.

In other areas, Steve Lonegan did offer a number of specific ideas. Obviously, the flat tax is his central platform issue. And when asked what he would cut in state government, Lonegan named five departments he would eliminate or consolidate. Now, you can argue how much money that will actually save, but at least he made a specific commitment.

Christie did a good job hammering Lonegan’s flat tax proposal – basically that it would actually raise income taxes on most New Jersey families – thus undermining the credibility of Lonegan’s “hook” a bit. However, when asked to describe his own plans, Christie was less compelling.

Christie said he would use zero-based budgeting and the line-item veto, but did not specify which budget lines he would strike out. His hallmark tax reduction plan is to require a legislative super-majority for future tax increases. Not exactly the kind of stuff that’ll make voters to sit up and take notice.

It’s like walking into a Baskin-Robbins and finding the only flavors they’ve got are Pistachio Almond, Cotton Candy, and Rum Raisin. Sure, some people may really like those flavors. But for most people, the choices are nothing to get excited about.

The candidates did agree on some other policy areas. They support school vouchers, although there were some differences in how they would be applied. Neither would re-appoint any of the sitting Supreme Court justices up for tenure during the next four years (although a question about re-appointing Chief Justice Stu Rabner, a former Christie protege, made for an interesting moment).

Of course, the bottom line is whether any of their core proposals can get passed by a Democratically controlled legislature (and that’s not going to change next year, regardless of who wins at the top of the ticket). On that score, Christie is probably more realistic. Lonegan’s flat tax proposal will go nowhere in Trenton, whereas the line-item veto may be a Republican governor’s only real power.

Still, you should be able to specify which lines you will veto so the voters who are inclined to support you have some hook to hang their hats on.

That being said, the winner of this debate was Lonegan on points.