by David P. Rebovich In his closing statement in last month’s gubernatorial debate on NJN, Doug Forrester announced how he wanted voters to think of him. “I’m a Tom Kean Republican,” he said, a proclamation that would soon be reinforced by a classy ad featuring the popular former governor endorsing his party’s current candidate for the state’s top spot. That label and endorsement helped Forrester. He cut into Jon Corzine’s lead, and suddenly the governor’s race was competitive. But now only a few weeks before Election Day, four polls show that Corzine’s lead is increasing as more voters are making up their minds about whom they will support on November 8th. In this situation many front-runners would be content to solidify their leads, keep their opponent at bay with a heavy dose of attack ads, and run out the clock. But in last week’s League of Women Voters’-ABC debate, Corzine demonstrated that he wants to finish what has been a campaign dominated by negatives on a positive note. In his closing statement the Senator said he was optimistic about New Jersey given its strong and smart people and solid economic base. Corzine added that he has the vision, a series of specific plans, the integrity and the competence to achieve property tax relief, help uninsured kids, provide greater access to higher education, and to restore fiscal and ethical responsibility in a state that has gotten off track and not realized its potential. Most New Jerseyans thought, and certainly hoped, that the candidates would have devoted more time this campaign season talking about these and other substantive issues. Instead, what they got were platitudes about property tax relief and ethics reform and a record number of negative ads about the candidates’ business and political associates and their selfish goals. Now with victory in sight Corzine apparently realizes that he wants to be more than simply the winner by default or the multimillionaire who bought yet another election. To lead the state, the next governor needs credibility and a mandate from the electorate. WInners always say they have been granted a mandate by virtue of their victory, and Corzine or Forrester will certainly make that claim on the night of November 8th. But some poll numbers indicate that New Jersey voters are not happy with the gubernatorial candidates or optimistic about what the next governor will accomplish. The most recent Quinnipiac Poll gives Corzine a 50% to 43% lead over Forrester. This poll was good news for Corzine for two reasons. He cracked the magic 50% mark. And, it showed that only 7% of likely voters are undecided. That’s a very small amount, too small for Forrester to have a realistic chance of closing the gap by Election Day. On top of that, 90 percent of likely voters surveyed by Quinnipiac said that they will not change their minds about whom they will support for governor. Last week’s polls from Rasmussen, Monmouth University/Gannett and The New York Times also gave Corzine solid leads of 8% to 9%. The New York Times survey showed that one-third of the voters who supported Corzine or Forrester may still change their minds before Election Day. It is also revealed that voters who have followed the campaign closely were less likely to support Corzine. And more folks believe that the Democratic Party is more likely than the GOP to have corrupt politicians in its ranks. These data seem to give Forrester some hope. If he can convince more voters over the next two weeks that Corzine is indeed part of the Democratic Party establishment that has controlled state government for the past four years, perhaps the race will tighten. What’s not good news for either Corzine or Forrester is how New Jerseyans regard the gubernatorial candidates. Only about 50 percent say they like the choices they have for governor. The candidates’ favorable ratings are also low. Corzine is deemed favorable by only 39 percent of likely voters in the Quinnipiac Poll that gave him support from 50% of likely voters. Forrester received only a 35% approval rating but is supported by 43% of likely voters. The Rasmussen survey showed that 41% rate the front-runner Corzine favorably while 41% also regard him unfavorably. Forrester was also viewed favorably by 41% but only 31% rate him unfavorably. What do these numbers mean? Well, many New Jerseyans clearly have their doubts about Corzine and Forrester. The fact that Corzine’s support score are higher than his favorable ratings can mean a few things. One is that in this blue state Corzine benefits simply because he is a Democrat. Another is that Forrester pays a price because he is a Republican at a time when a large majority of New Jerseyans are unhappy with the GOP- controlled national government. However, The New York Times survey suggests that a large majority of New Jerseyans do not see the governor’s race as a referendum on the Bush administration. But nor do most New Jerseyans believe that either Corzine or Forrester will be able to keep their most important campaign promises – the pledge to cut provide property tax relief. Only 15% think Forrester would cut property taxes while just 8 percent think Corzine would. These figures are incredibly low, especially since these two candidates have spent $50 million trying to sell themselves to New Jerseyans. Or, more accurately, trying to discredit their opponent any way possible. The highly negative quality of the campaign has turned some voters off, according to the Monmouth University/Gannett Poll. Last month 54% of New Jerseyans said they had “a lot” of interest in the race. Now that figure is 50%. Previously 18% said they had little or no interest in the campaign. Today it’s 21% admit that they have tuned out the candidates. This poses a big problem for Forrester. To get back in the race, he has to get more New Jerseyans tuned into the campaign. But then he has to try to discredit Corzine without turning prospective supporters off before they get a chance to hear more about the Republican’s property tax relief and other policy plans. Corzine, of course, has an easier task All he has to do is avoid any major mistakes. But if Corzine is to be elected the state’s next governor, it behooves him to start laying a foundation for the ambitious policy agenda he often mentions on the stump but rarely details. If not, New Jerseyans may be in for a big surprise when a Governor Corzine makes his inaugural address and proposes his first budget. And Corzine himself may be in a for a big surprise when citizens, including many who voted for him, reject the new governor’s policy agenda as something out of left field that was never adequately explained to them. In the closing weeks of the campaign, It looks like it would pay for Corzine to run a few less ads attacking Forrester and a few more explaining what he really plans to do as governor. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.