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Three Weeks Out: How We Got Here

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Shortly after New Jersey’s gubernatorial primary in June, I wrote a blog post about the messages and strategy to look for in the general election. With just three weeks left before Garden State voters go to the polls, I thought it would be a good time to see how things have played out. It turns out that neither major party candidate strayed from the blueprint laid down at the start of their campaign. The only real surprise has come from the independent.

1. Show me the plan. I believe that Steve Lonegan did better than expected in the GOP primary simply because he articulated a plan. And that lesson should not have been ignored. As I wrote in May, when it comes down to it, voters still need a policy-based hook to hang their hats on. Change for change’s sake was never going to be an effective strategy for Chris Christie. New Jersey voters believe that both parties are equally to blame for the problems in Trenton. Oddly enough, so does the GOP nominee. So why should we elect him over Corzine? That’s what a lot of Chris Daggett’s newfound supporters appear to be saying.

2. [With apologies to Socrates…] The unexamined life…could get you re-elected. Jon Corzine’s record has gone basically unexamined during this campaign. I wrote in June that the Corzine camp would focus on the incumbent doing the best he can under difficult economic circumstances. I parenthetically added, “Pay no attention to that toll hike plan behind the curtain.” I still can’t quite believe how Corzine walked out of the first debate without having to defend either his toll plan or the fizzled-out special session to reform property taxes. Not only is the Christie campaign short on specifics for their own ideas, but they’ve missed taking easy shots against the incumbent.

3. “What about the heart you promised Tin Man?” A continuing criticism of Corzine is that he just doesn’t understand the problems faced by average New Jerseyans. So, one of the images that really stood out on primary night was an unusually fired-up Jon Corzine and the personal stories he told. We saw a glimpse of that on the campaign trail when he talked to a voter about his son’s health troubles (which later turned into the Great Mammogram Debate of 2009). His campaign staff obviously recognized the value of this touching moment, since they blast emailed the exchange just hours after it occurred. But then we got…nothing. Corzine had ample opportunities during the first debate to phrase his answers in the context of the lives of average residents, but he never did. Considering that an inability to make personal connections is his Achilles’ heel, I was really surprised that his handlers didn’t prep him with stories about how his policies have helped Peter from Passaic or how Christie’s would hurt Margaret from Mays Landing.

4. Obamarama! I fully expected Corzine to play up his association with the President. Even though Obama’s poll numbers have slipped with independents, he’s still a force among core Democratic voter groups. I’ve been crisscrossing the state a lot these past few weeks, particularly spending time in the state’s urban areas. Corzine billboards are everywhere. But I’m a bit confused. I though Loretta Weinberg was the Democratic running mate. Judging from these billboards, it’s actually Barack Obama (with Corzine in the number 2 slot on the “Obama/Corzine” team).

5. Am-Bushed! I actually expected to see more Bush-Christie tie-ins from the Corzine camp. There have been some to be sure, but not quite as many as I expected. Of course, this connection got superseded by the news “scoops” on Christie’s unreported loans, unpaid income taxes, reckless driving, and other equally, um, weighty issues. The Bush connections have been mostly used in appeals to the Democratic core – but even there, the Bush image on billboards is quite literally squeezed aside by the monstrous image of Christie’s face. This race has gotten ugly by literally getting ugly. But the Corzine camp understands that voters will not vote for change if they are in any way uncomfortable with the alternative.

6. Lonegan rides again. I wrote in June that Steve Lonegan wants to be a player in state politics. Since he’s not on the ballot for governor, he has decided to lead the battle to defeat the open space bond question. He claims credit for defeating two ballot measures in 2007 (although my examination of the numbers indicates they would have been defeated even without his involvement). If this one goes down as well, expect the media to view him as a potent political force.

7. Hiding your L(i)G(ht) under a bushel. I thought Christie’s pick for Lieutenant Governor could be a hot potato for the GOP. In the end, he went for Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, a pro-choice woman who presumably would appeal to independent voters. Then, the Christie brain trust promptly kept the media from having any access to her aside from joint appearances. Based on her performance at the LG debate last week, the reason is now clear. Guadagno’s actually a better candidate than Christie! But neither side knows what to do with these running mates. If you listened to Loretta Weinberg at the LG debate, it’s unclear that she has had any conversations with Corzine about what her role in the administration would be.

8. “Chris Daggett could make things interesting.” I wrote that sentence in June based on his primary night NJN interview where he came off as a straight-talker. That part has certainly come true. I also wrote that Daggett could make the debates uncomfortable for both Corzine and Christie. So, I was only half right there.