TIME FOR CORZINE TO TALK ABOUT THE REAL VILLAINS

Solidify your base. Attack and discredit your opponent. Give undecided voters reasons to support you. Close the deal by explaining how electing you will improve voters’ lives and the state as a whole. If citizens are especially angry or frustrated with politics as usual – and if you have aspirations beyond the position you are currently seeking – then run against the political establishment. And run as a new breed politician, who is guided, even driven, by praiseworthy values and a grand vision. This is a fair description of Jon Corzine’s campaign for governor. At least the one that he and his very able staff had hoped to run and may think they still have time to carry out. But with only three weeks to go before Election Day, Team Corzine looks like it has devoted much of its time and effort, including those omnipresent television and radio ads, to solidifying the Democratic Party base and attacking the opponent, Republican Doug Forrester. That strategy may enable Corzine to eke out a victory in this “blue” state. However, it also seems to be making this year’s governor’s race closer than anyone had expected. At this point, with polls showing the Senator with a single digit lead, Corzine and his inner circle will take a close victory on November 8th. Will they actually be happy with, say, a 5 or 6 point win? Publicly yes, but privately of course not. That’s because Corzine not only wants to win the governor’s race. He wants to do so in a way that elevates him, makes him not just a popular public figure but a populist, and gives him a mandate to enact bold changes that transform New Jersey’s politics and improve people’s lives. If he fulfills that mandate, a Governor Corzine will earn accolades here and across the nation as the guy who cleaned up the state and who addressed its major policy challenges at the same time. Corzine has not been doing enough the last month to cultivate an image as either a populist or a reformer committed to praiseworthy political and policy goals. Instead, he has been focusing on obtaining endorsements from various groups who can help him win next month and on criticizing Forrester for being too conservative for a state like New Jersey. However, unless Corzine explains how the interests of those groups who endorse him are subsumed by, and perhaps even subordinated to, his overall reform agenda, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate runs the risk of looking like an old-fashioned liberal. And attacking Forrester, who is clearly a moderate, for being too conservative may feed this perception. The relevance of this for the campaign is that late-deciding voters, as well as soft-supporters of either candidate, don’t care much about ideology and are likely to be turned off by all those attack ads. What they are more likely to care about is what each candidate will do about high property taxes, political corruption, and the politicians and party leaders currently in power who seem to be responsible for both. The way Corzine garners a big victory – the type the helps him justify leaving the U.S. Senate, positions him to become an historic figure in state politics, and gives him a shot at even higher office – is to start talking about the real villains who voters want excised from the state’s politics. Who are these villains? Not President Bush, who may not be popular here but is not blamed for the state’s big policy problems or the conduct of its politicians. Not pro-life supporters who, after all, have the right to their moral and political views and who are already marginalized in this generally pro-choice state. Not gun owners or sportsmen, most of whom do not support legalizing assault weapons or liberalizing gun purchasing regulations. Not prescription drug manufacturers, who after all provide many high-paying jobs in New Jersey and whose continued presence here is important to Corzine’s own economic growth plans. Yet, Corzine is repeatedly running negative ads that associate Forrester with all these “bad guys” and imply that these associations mean that the Republican does not have the appropriate values to be the Governor of a moderate state like New Jersey. In the meantime, Corzine has been courting African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, union members, environmentalists and pro-choice groups to help his candidacy in this close race. Corzine’s efforts, and Forrester’s too, to bring individuals and groups into this campaign and the political process generally are absolutely praiseworthy and one of the most important political developments in New Jersey this year. And Corzine’s concern about providing opportunities for all New Jerseyans and reducing their cost of living is a positive statement of values and seemingly smart politics. But it is will not be smart politics if Corzine is seen as simply patronizing various people and groups and pandering to them for support. Consider for the moment two types of voters. One is an unaffiliated, middle-class (lower, upper or mid) suburbanite. The other is a minority (African-American, Latino-American, or Asian-American) urban resident who typically votes Democrat but is skeptical of politicians in general. Both voters hear Jon Corzine discussing his affordability agenda and touting more access to inexpensive health coverage, financial aid for college students, affordable housing, and job training. This sounds like good stuff that most New Jerseyans would in principle be likely to support. But when they think about putting any ambitious program like Corzine’s into practice, voters may get nervous. The suburbanite may think, “Wait a minute. Are these programs more ‘give-aways’ to the poor and to cities that drive up taxes and that, in the end, don’t seem to help the people they are intended to?” The urbanite, too, may wonder if these are promises that sound good but don’t really help average folks as much as they do the party bosses and government officials who oversee and implement these programs. How do you address these concerns if your are Jon Corzine? Well, you point out that the programs you are proposing are not the sort that require larger bureaucracies or the help of local politicians to be implemented. But you also need to emphatically state your commitment to establishing direct connections to your constituents to make certain that you as governor do understand their needs and that your policies are working. Political necessity may require Corzine to nod to his party’s bosses and legislative leaders. But Corzine also needs to provide some evidence that he will dissociate himself from those politicians in his own party who stood in the way of reform the last few years and who citizens worry will undermine the next governor. If he doesn’t, then don’t be surprised if many late-deciding voters start paying attention to some of Doug Forrester’s attack ads. You know, the ones that call Corzine a tax and spend liberal and part of the problem, not part of the solution, to what ails the Garden State. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of Rider University’s Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.