The State of Politics: Jersey Swamplands

Garden State gubernatorial race turns petty

There are only two big statewide contests this November -- governor's contests in Virginia and New Jersey.  The former seems pretty decided: Republican Bob McDonnell has carved out a pretty solid lead against Democrat Creigh Deeds. 

Not surprisingly, the Garden State provides the real excitement this year, with enough nutty storylines and subplots to fill an episode of "The Sopranos."  But, this being, New Jersey, it's not enough that the race could be dominated by arguments over property taxes, a floundering economy, the always endemic corruption -- even who might be the biggest Springsteen fan.  Nope, remarkably, the race could come down to how the public reacts to one candidate calling the other fat. 

Hey, this is Jersey, folks. 

For most of the year, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine -- bedeviled by a weak economy and having overseen a series of tax hikes -- has significantly trailed Republican former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. In the last few weeks, however, Corzine has pulled into a dead heat.  

But independent candidate Chris Daggett has recently become a force in the race. His provocative plan for property tax reform earned him a big feature article in The New York Times and, more importantly, the surprising endorsement of the state's biggest paper, the Newark Star-Ledger

Perhaps, not coincidentally, Daggett is getting fairly positive headlines because he's waging a policy-based campaign -- just as Corzine and Christie seem locked in a more personal dogfight.  And it doesn't get much more personal than, well, one guy calling the other fat.  It started three weeks ago with a hard-hitting ad that went after Christie for a series of preferential treatment in traffic and other incidents . The ad accused the hefty Christie (shown getting out of his car) of "throwing his weight around."  Corzine's spokesman at the time declared that the ad wasn't meant to bring attention to Christie's physical appearance. 

Corzine, however, crossed that line on Tuesday. Asked if he thought Christie was fat, Corzine rubbed his hairless scalp and responded, "Am I bald?"

In the real world, the exchange might be rather amusing.  In the political world,Corzine is stepping into very precarious waters.  The initial ad may have been fair game.  But making a personal attack against an opponent strikes many voters as dirty pool. A fat joke may well backfire against Corzine (who's not exactly Kate Moss himself). 

There's a precedent for this sort of late-in-the-game personal jabs blowing up in the face of the aggressor.  In 1998, incumbent three-term Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York was locked in a tight struggle with Rep. Charles Schumer,  Two weeks before election day, D'Amato was permanently knocked off  course after word got out that, in a talk before a Jewish group, he referred to Schumer as a "putzhead." D'Amato's initial denial fed into an ongoing Schumer line of attack -- that the incumbent had a history of embarrassing gaffes and ethical miscues that he then lied about.  

Christie may have the chance to do the same to Corzine:  He's already made Corzine's negative ads part of  his own reform message. The governor, meanwhile, may learn that the narrow odds he faced in gaining re-election -- may have suddenly become a fat chance. 

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter.

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