Dem candidates say they love Corzine, but perhaps from a distance

The last time all 120 legislative seats were in play, back in 2003, Gov. James E. McGreevey, who was suffering from low poll numbers, made himself scarce on the campaign trail.

Although Gov. Jon S. Corzine doesn’t suffer from the same upside-down poll numbers as McGreevey did, he doesn’t appear to be a hot commodity with Democratic legislative candidates running in the fall mid-term elections.

While Democrats aren’t running away from Corzine, they’re not exactly tripping over themselves to get him on their campaigns. As of right now, aside from a couple bill signings, none of the Democrats who are in competitive races — districts one, two, seven, eight, 12, 14, 38 or 39 — have any rallies or fundraisers planned with Corzine.

What this means is up for debate. Public sentiment against Corzine’s asset monetization plan has become the Republican centerpiece in their campaigns to get control of the legislature – most specifically in districts one and two — and most Democrats have already sworn to defend the state’s highway system from any hint of privatization. Now, the revelation that he gave $15,000 to the brother-in-law of his ex-girlfriend/paramour/companion Carla Katz may have opened fresh political wounds.

But the governor’s office said that he has received several requests to attend bill signings and fundraisers, although not in especially competitive districts. His schedule is also complicated by follow-up leg surgery that he’s set to undergo in mid-September, making it difficult to commit to appearances during a peak campaign time.

“I’ll tell you that we were up in Bergen County yesterday and everyone was falling over themselves to get a picture with the governor,” said Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton. “I don’t think it’s a question of them not wanting his assistance on some level.”

Corzine was in Marlboro today, accompanied by about 12 mostly Democratic legislators. He was there to sign four bills – most prominently the dual office holding ban sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Ellen Karcher — in a district where Karcher is fighting tooth and nail to keep her state Senate seat from Republican Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck. The event was ostensibly non-campaign related, but could be read as Corzine showing up to support the state Senator in her reelection bid.

But as of right now, Karcher’s campaign doesn’t have any other appearances scheduled with the governor.

“We’re happy to have the governor come in when it makes sense, when it’s on an issue that people care about,” said Karcher campaign manager Mike Premo. Karcher and her Assembly running mates Mike Panter and Amy Mallet have all declared their opposition to monetization, but say they aren’t afraid to be seen with Corzine. “We’re obviously not running away,” said Premo.

Democrats are quick to note that they would be happy to accept a visit from Gov. Corzine, and that his approval rating is a positive if not stellar 46-36 percent, according to a July Quinnipiac poll.

But while allegations from Republicans continue to swirl around Corzine’s relationship with Carla Katz, the main reason Democrats aren’t anxious to be seen with Corzine may be monetization, according to Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project.

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about the asset monetization issue, and legislators want to find their position themselves,” said Reed. “Bringing in the governor raises the fact that it’s a hovering issue that brings responses that simply are not positive, that people simply aren’t embracing the governor’s enthusiasm.”

In the first district, where the already big issue of asset monetization has taken on mythic proportions, Democratic Assemblyman and state Senate candidate Jeff Van Drew doesn’t have anything planned with Corzine, although he’s sure he’ll bump into him at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City later this week.

Van Drew and his Assembly running mate Nelson Albano have been perhaps the most vocal Democratic critics of monetization, but incumbent Republican state Senator Nicholas Asselta has been steadfast in trying to tie Van Drew to the Governor over the issue.

Still, Van Drew said he’s not ducking the Governor — it’s just his style of campaigning to stand on his own two feet.

“I do my thing and I always have. This is nothing new and has nothing to do with Jon Corzine or anyone else,” said Van Drew. “I certainly have not shied away form making appearances with a Democratic Governor.”

Up in the 39th district, where three Democrats are mounting a challenge to three long-term GOP incumbents, the Democrats haven’t asked for Corzine’s help either. Their campaign manager, Jennifer Chirco, said that her candidates’ non-incumbent status keeps them somewhat separated from any disenchantment with prominent Democrats. Still, Chirco said, the candidates would never turn down a generous offer of assistance from Corzine.

“I’ve never considered Corzine a liability, and he’s not up this year. It’s not like there’s going to be a referendum on Corzine,” said Chirco. “I would never turn down having the Governor headline a fundraiser or event for us. He’s a large draw for people….. he’s done a standup job as a Governor.”

In the 14th district, Corzine does have a signing planned for Linda Greenstein’s infectious diseases bill. And since the district is participating in the publicly financed Clean Elections Pilot Program, those candidates won’t need the governor’s help to raise money.

Democrats are quick to point out that they’ll embrace Corzine far more readily than local Republicans will embrace President Bush. And while most Republicans in competitive districts have used asset monetization as a campaign issue, none thought that Corzine himself would be a suitable albatross for Democrats.

“He seems to have some vulnerability but he seems to have been immune from political fallout,” said State Sen. Gerald Cardinale. “It generated a lot of public sympathy for him as it would anybody who was injured so unfortunately, and I think that has given him a pass on some of these things in the mind of the general public.”

Beck said she’d rather run a race on her record and Karcher’s than make Corzine the issue.

“Will there be some effect based on Corzine’s popularity versus unpopularity? There’s some. But I think that your position and your record are what’s important,” said Beck.

Dem candidates say they love Corzine, but perhaps from a distance