RACE TIGHTENS AND AD BLITZ BEGINS

Three recent polls show that the governor’s race between Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester has tightened. One, the Quinnipiac Poll, has Corzine ahead by only four points, 48 to 44 percent. The reasons for Forrester’s recent surge? For starters, more Republicans have rallied behind their party’s candidate. He has also made headway with voters in general on the key issues of property tax relief and ethics reform. And his television ads, especially the one featuring his articulate and attractive wife, apparently have helped improve his image among some New Jerseyans who knew little about him. All of this is certainly good news for the GOP gubernatorial candidate. The encouraging poll numbers enable him to plausibly claim that he is still in the running and that support from previously discouraged Republicans and from undecided voters can propel him to victory next month. Forrester can also argue that despite all of Corzine’s well-known surrogate speakers – like John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg, several popular Democratic congressmen and even Bill Clinton -, and their unfair attacks, the governor’s seat is still up for grabs. With only five weeks to go before Election Day, this is something of a surprise. While Forrester has a bounce in his step and Corzine is putting on a brave face, both candidates know that they have their work cut out for them. Forrester may be in better shape than he was in the Star Ledger/Rutgers Eagleton Poll earlier in September that had him a frightening 20 points behind. But his average support in the recent FDU, Gannett/Monmouth University, and Quinnipiac polls is only about 40 percent. This is what any Republican candidate can reasonably expect to have in a statewide race simply by being on the ballot. Not that Corzine has much to brag about. The incumbent U.S. Senator is supported by only 45 percent of likely voters in the these same polls. That’s hardly impressive for a well-known Democrat in a “blue state” like New Jersey. The question now is, what will each candidate do to try to garner more support? New Jerseyans did not have to wait long to find out. Once the new poll numbers were released, Corzine and Forrester hit the airwaves with ads that touted their own virtues and attacked their opponent. The long anticipated barrage of television and radio ads from two self-funded, multimillionaire candidates had been slow in coming. But it has arrived and will continue unabated right through November 8th. Both candidates have some strengths that they want to highlight. Both are also vulnerable in important ways and would be well advised to try to minimize their weaknesses. And Forrester and Corzine can improve their prospects for gaining more support by making some fairly basic moves as Election Day approaches. Forrester’s camp has learned a few things in September. Andrea Forrester is an asset to the campaign who has helped provide some breadth to her husband’s political persona and caused some voters to give the GOP candidate a closer look. Expect to see her in more ads and perhaps in some high profile campaign appearances. Forrester himself has shown that he can speak comfortably and confidently on television and on the campaign trail. Don’t expect to see Corzine and Forrester together more than a few more times before Election Day. But do expect to see and hear Forrester more in his own ads. Also get used to the GOP’s mantra about their candidate’s “momentum” and Corzine’s desperate tactics. On issues, Forrester will continue hitting hard on the message that he, not the Corzine-led Democrats, will reduce property taxes and ensure comprehensive ethics reform. Corzine, too, is now talking more about property taxes relief and ethics reform, especially since Forrester’s ratings on these two issues have improved. But the Democrat will also emphasize his “affordability agenda” that is aimed at appealing to his party’s base and to unaffiliated middle class people who are also squeezed by high health care, housing and tuition costs. A regular theme of Corzine’s ads and speeches will be the superiority of his and his party’s values, from supporting a woman’s right to choose to a commitment to helping the needy and protecting the environment. For those who may think that these two multimillionaire candidates aren’t so different, Corzine is following up where his surrogates left off. He is arguing that New Jersey needs a Democrat in the State House because heartless, incompetent Republicans control the national government. And, as the Democrat’s new ad ominously puts it, Forrester is George Bush’s choice for governor. Both candidates have vulnerabilities that need attention, too. Yes, the Bush factor is a drag on Forrester’s campaign, and the Democrats are intent on coloring the moderate Republican to be as conservative as the President. Forrester has left himself open to such comparisons by not specifying his views on several policy issues, much less making an effort to reassure residents that he is genuinely committed to such popular positions as preserving open space and keeping the environment clean, improving the quality of public education, and aggressively fighting crime. What are Corzine’s problems? Some would say that one is his skimpy record in the U.S. Senate, the price he pays for being in the minority party. He is also nagged by a reputation for buying nominations and support. In addition, Corzine seems to have a hard time translating his engaging private personality into an appealing public one that exudes sincerity. And, he cannot ignore concerns that despite the fact that he has served in Washington since 2001, he is closely tied to the Democratic Party establishment in New Jersey and some of its controversial leaders. Where should both candidates go from here? Forrester could consider airing snappy, uncomplicated and upbeat ads that reassure citizens about his mainstream views, decry the dishonesty of his opponent, and accuse Corzine of not being committed to cleaning up the state. Forrester will have to resurrect the argument that Corzine is one of the Democratic bosses who will not change things in Trenton. After all, if Corzine really does plan to clean up state politics, wouldn’t he be criticizing his fellow Democrats for bequeathing the next governor so many problems. If the race does stay close, don’t be surprised if Corzine does in fact turn on his fellow Democrats. It is inconceivable that he would jeopardize his prospects of being elected governor because he doesn’t want to offend some party leaders. In addition, expect Corzine to start highlighting his many endorsements in campaign ads to demonstrate broad-based support from police, firefighters, teachers, environmentalists, and construction workers. Individually the endorsements may not matter much. But collectively they may give undecided voters the impression that the Democratic candidate is acceptable to a wide variety of people who resemble their friends, relatives and even themselves. If that happens, Forrester will have a hard time gaining any more ground. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (wwww.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.

RACE TIGHTENS AND AD BLITZ BEGINS