When New Jersey polling stations closed at 8 p.m., Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine was relaxing upstairs at the East Brunswick Hilton, tucked away in a suite with his mother, brother and three children. Below, the hotel’s grand ballroom began to swell with elected officials, campaign operatives and assorted well-wishers, all of them confident.
All along, it had been Mr. Corzine’s race to win, or lose. Mr. Corzine was projected to win the race at about 10 p.m. With some 55 percent of the vote counted, he had about 54 percent, to Republican Douglas Forrester’s 43 percent.
Though victorious, Mr. Corzine was not undamaged. His ex-wife’s attack on his character, milked for all it was worth by Mr. Forrester, changed the dynamics of this battle of the millionaires.
Mr. Forrester, a wooden, uncharismatic figure who hoped that voter disgust with New Jersey scandals and high property taxes would carry him to the State House in Trenton, was closing in on Mr. Corzine as the polls closed.
The race received national attention in part because of the huge amounts of money both candidates spent, and in part because of its unbelievably nasty tone—even by New Jersey standards.
Mr. Corzine’s supporters monitored returns while enjoying an open bar and barbecue buffet supper, their eyes on two Jumbotrons flanking the empty stage. It figured to be more than a few hours before the Democrat emerged. Among the songs playing in the background was Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” perhaps not the best pick considering the charges leveled at Mr. Corzine.
“They threw the kitchen sink at Jon Corzine and he was still standing and leading until the last day,” said Assembly Speaker Alberto Sires. “I think the issue involving his wife, I think she was coached into saying some of those things. I think they used her—the Republican Party.”
U.S. Representative Robert Menendez, who fully expects to be appointed to the U.S. Senate if Mr. Corzine wins, predicted that Mr. Corzine would get the largest Latino vote in New Jersey history. If so, Mr. Menendez will be happy to take some of the credit—he is a Cuban-American who enjoys tremendous Latino support.
The Congressman shrugged off Mr. Corzine’s drop in the pre-election polls. “People who seem invincible end up in very tight races,” he said.
After a race marred by enough political hair-pulling and personal attacks to merit an episode of Jerry Springer, Mr. Corzine had tried to end his campaign on a classier note.
“If somebody doesn’t think that the Holland Tunnel goes under the river, and has openings on both sides of the river, they’re just flat-out wrong,” he told a phalanx of firefighters at a get-out-the-vote rally in Jersey City on Monday afternoon. No one laughed. The weary Senator was trying to address a serious issue, to rouse his audience with passionate talk of threat-based homeland-security funding. His tone, however, felt flat and a bit forced, as if no one cared anymore, not even him.
Despite the Senator’s best efforts, it seemed that there was no turning back to substance. Both Mr. Corzine and Mr. Forrester had spent months clawing at each other in a series of televised attack ads, building up a malicious momentum that overshadowed everything else in the race. This battle, which drove up the candidates’ campaign bills to a combined $70 million, escalated after Joanne Corzine, the Senator’s ex-wife, lashed out at her husband on the front page of The New York Times.
“When I saw the campaign ad where Andrea Forrester said, ‘Doug never let his family down, and he won’t let New Jersey down,’ all I could think was that Jon did let his family down, and he’ll probably let New Jersey down, too,” Ms. Corzine said.
The Forrester campaign seized on her embittered words and recycled the quote into a string of television ads and mailers. Senator Corzine retaliated with ads of his own, which accused his opponent of using “Bush-Rove smear tactics.”
The race had become so lowdown and dirty, so patently absurd, that even Jay Leno had to get a dig in.
“The Republican candidate is running an ad featuring the Democratic candidate’s ex-wife, and the Democratic candidate is allegedly spreading rumors that the Republican candidate had an affair with an ex–Miss New Jersey,” cracked Mr. Leno on a recent episode of The Tonight Show. “Boy, remember the good old days in Jersey when all they had to worry about was a crooked gay governor?”
And though the attack ads disgusted many voters, they still struck a blow to Mr. Corzine, the race’s perpetual front-runner. Results from a Quinnipiac University poll, released on Monday morning, showed Mr. Corzine leading Mr. Forrester by just seven points, a margin sharply narrower than the week before, when the Senator led his rival by 12 points.
By Monday evening, a WNBC/Marist poll suggested that the candidates had drawn even closer and were nearing even. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus five percentage points—Mr. Corzine was at 51 percent and Mr. Forrester 46 percent.
So, in the final hours of his campaign, no one seemed to be paying much attention to Mr. Corzine’s fleeting attempts at positivity. Before his rally in Jersey City, one bystander tried to inject some excitement into the crowd. “Corzine will tell the press that his wife’s a registered Republican,” he joked.
As the rally wrapped up, The Observer asked Mr. Corzine if, in retrospect, he would have done anything differently over the past few weeks to elevate the tone of the race. “I think it is hard to anticipate what your competitor is going to do with a lot of the arguments and try make them public,” he said. “We’ve been trying to talk about a positive vision. As a matter of fact, I’m running a positive commercial right now on TV—‘I Believe’—where I lay out a clear vision for the state of New Jersey, and we’re going to continue to talk about that right up ’til the polls close.”
History of Scandal
New Jersey, never quite known as a bastion of ethical politics, has over the past few years sunk neck-deep in a morass of political corruption. The state’s last elected governor, James E. McGreevey, left office amidst mounting scandals, which included a gay extramarital affair with his homeland-security advisor. Over the past four years, the state’s political class has seen more than 75 corruption indictments.
Both candidates in the governor’s race have pledged to root out the rot in Trenton and solve the beleaguered state’s deepest crises, most notably, soaring property taxes. But the voters and local press corps have grown skeptical. How can these guys restore dignity to the State House if they can’t even run civilized campaigns?
That mood swept into Manhattan on Saturday night, as NBC host Gabe Pressman moderated the fifth and final gubernatorial debate from the network’s studio in Rockefeller Plaza. Starting around 6:30 p.m., a gaggle of reporters, some still sporting their Trenton State House press badges, settled into a sixth-floor conference room at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Plaza, where they grazed on chips and cheese and tossed out competing wisecracks as they waited for the brawl to begin. A pair of flat-screen televisions piped in pre-debate news coverage. During a commercial break, Mr. Corzine’s bearded visage appeared on the screen. “I believe … ,” the Senator began dreamily. “I believe in the promise of stem-cell research, strong gun laws and a woman’s right to choose,” he said.
“I believe that everybody has a right to have their own affairs outside the public domain,” quipped a reporter from the Star-Ledger. “I believe that Doug Forrester should be throttled, and throttled hard,” someone added.
“Oh, so we’re getting positive in the 11th hour, eh, Rich?” jabbed a radio reporter, looking pointedly at Rich McGrath, a Democratic State Committee spokesman.
The room grew quiet as the debate began, with Mr. Pressman playing footage of the candidates’ negative television ads (“Lovely, I haven’t seen enough of them,” the radio reporter groaned). As the candidates began to clash, talking over each other in a heated struggle to be heard, a reporter from The New York Times consulted his wristwatch and sighed. “Civility lasted a little under 10 minutes,” he lamented.
The room broke into laughter when Mr. Corzine stumbled, admitting he thought New Jersey’s legal drinking age was 18, rather than 21.
“At his place, girls can drink between 18 and 21, no problem,” a reporter later joked to Sherry Sylvester, a spokesperson for Mr. Forrester. Ms. Sylvester began rattling off the relationship between state drinking age and transportation funding; he cut her off. “You’re always such a wonk. I’m talking about a major party downstate,” he laughed.
Attack ads aside, some of the candidates’ more creative endorsements never saw prime time. On Oct. 13 at the Renaissance Church in Newark, for example, poet Habibullah Saleem read his own paean praising Mr. Forrester’s virtues: a poem of 24 rhyming couplets, which Mr. Forrester posted on his Web site.
The price for Governor is loyalty
The price for Governor is the
absence of lust …
A few stanzas later, it continued:
Down to Earth whether Black
Doug Forrester as Governor an
With nothing to hide devoted
Vote for Doug Forrester and not