The man in the middle: Daggett centers his candidacy with property tax relief plan

TRENTON – Gov. Jon Corzine attacks GOP challenger and former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie for awarding a $52 million no-bid

TRENTON – Gov. Jon Corzine attacks GOP challenger and former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie for awarding a $52 million no-bid contract to a former boss and jailing people for failing to report income then turning around and doing the same thing himself, while on the first day of Joe Ferriero's corruption trial, Christie upbraids Corzine for donating half a million dollars to the ex-Democratic Party chairman's political organization and "enabling corruption with your own personal wealth."

It's intense.

Determinately the man in the middle, independent Chris Daggett receives most of the laugh lines from the audience, inducing the biggest guffaw when he responds to praise from both Gov Jon Corzine and former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie by deadpanning, "Sounds like both these two guys might vote for me."

When the debate ends and the three gubernatorial candidates clear the stage, politicos and pundits empty their seats and head for the exits here at the NJN studio and it's spin time.

What just happened over the course of a live, 90-minute public television debate comes back in segments as allies consider the best, most tellng moments.

Coming in here tonight it was all Corzine versus Christie, but early feedback in the room inscapably includes Daggett, who's just 13% in the polls, who wins plaudits for substance as he repeatedly worked the finer points of the property tax plan he unveiled earlier this week, which would expand the state's 7% sales tax to cover a wider range of services while cutting property taxes by 25%.

"Chris Daggett hit the ball out of the ballpark," Democrat Michael Murphy tells NJN Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron in a post debate breakdown that the cameras film while almost everyone else clears.

Daggett's running mate, Prof. Frank Esposito, interim dean at Kean University, appears in the hallway, and he's beaming.

"I'm very proud of my running mate tonight," Esposito tells PolitickerNJ.com. "He answered in specifics. That's what sets this ticket apart. He presented a workable property tax plan and you could hear the positive audience reaction in the studio."

Corzine on several occasions during the debate complimented Daggett "for having a plan" to curb property tax bills up $1,000 in four years on average, while disagreeing with the plan and simultaneously tagging Christie.

"No plan is not what being a governor is all about," the governor said early and repeated late in the direction of the former U.S. Attorney.

A former regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Daggett later threw his own elbow at the Republican.

"It's very easy to criticize when you have no plan of our own," he said.

A plan.

It's the theme of the night – and maybe now the campaign -for the independent candidate.

In the pre-debate street rallies, intent on being part of the action, Daggett's green T-shirted forces spiritedly muscled their way between the converging Christie and Corzine factions, shouting defiantly, "We've got a plan, we've got a plan! We've got a plan!"

In the aftermath, Corzine backer Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy praises Corzine and Daggett, but reserves nothing but criticism for Christie.

"He was terrible," Healy says of the Republican challenger. "He had no plan, followed by more generalizations, then the follow-up was the same. I mean, come on, 'I'll will work with the legislature' is a plan? Then his explosion very early on, he went after Corzine demanding an apology. Are you kidding me? Temperament is very important for a governor, and I thought the guy was off the charts atrocious. Abysmal.

"Corzine was fine," adds Healy, whose city – New Jersey's second largest – Corzine mentioned twice when he trumpeted 1,600 jobs leaving New York City for Jersey City.

State Republican Party Chairman Jay Webber doesn't think Corzine was fine, chalking Christie up as the winner tonight, and dismissing Daggett as the purveyor of a tax shift and ultimately tax hike masquerading as property tax relief.

"I thought it was an overwhelming victory for Chris Christie tonight," says Webber. "He's committed to cutting taxes. Jon Corzine, by contrast, appears to have no sense of what ails New Jersey."

Now the other contrast with Daggett potentially may hound Christie for the final month of his campaign, yet in the face ofrepeated criticism of the Republican for not having what critics say should be a more specific property tax reduction plan, Webber concedes that much of Christie's candidacy hinges on leadership style.

"He established his credibility as the U.S. Attorney," argues the state chairman. "I would argue that he did offer several specifics, including targeting overtime costs, pension reform and using the line item veto."

But an important feature of Christie's candidacy, Webber acknowledges, is his commitment to exert a forceful executive presence, which Republicans argue would be a stark contrast to a vague and aloof sitting Democratic governor hampered by his close political ties to the New Jersey Teachers' Association.

A backer of vouchers, and, he promises, a more aggressive proponent of charter schools than Corzine, Christie in the debate characterized Corzine as captive of a system in which over 50% of the students at Newark's Central High School last year could not pass the graduation exam.

On schools and the economy, "Gov. Corzine showed how out-of-touch he is tonight, bragging about his tax cuts and shrugging off the exodus out of our state as normal comings and goings," Webber adds.

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Middletown), chairman of the Christie campaign, says of his candidate on the ubiquitous property tax question, "He's at least as specific as President Obama was during last year's presidential campaign."

If Christie does not get detailed enough about his property reduction plan, he's specific, Kyrillos argues, "about his vision and philosophy. He wants to lower taxes and spend less, and make New Jersey competitive again."

The Christie can-do brand proved a platitude-fest for Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, however.

"It all comes down to specifics," says Hughes, a Democrat and Corzine backer. "Corzine had them. Christie didn't. Those of us living in the real world , who have to come in under a cap on property taxes, don't want to hear about increases in the size of government while he talks about increasing rebates."

Hughes says the defining issue in the debate proved to be women's issues.

Christie strongly objected to Corzine's ads claiming that the Republican's healthcare plan would deprive women of mammogram coverage.

"The issue is whether insurance companies pay for mammograms, and under his plan insurance companies would have the option of cutting them," Corzine explained. "It is absolutely essential to have these mandates so everyone can have these mammograms."

Patrick Murray, polling director at Monmouth University, whose poll this morning showed the gubernatorial contest narrowing to a three point Christie lead, tells Aron on the post debate panel, "Corzine and Daggett appeared almost to be ganging up on Christie."

But Daggett banged Corzine on several occasions during the debate, at one point alluding to Corzine's run of television attack ads against Christie when he said, "I don't care about driving records, loans to subordinates or girlfriends – and, by the way, my driving record's clean."

The independent further stung Corzine when he claimed, "The governor hasn't made the tough decisions on public sector unions," prompting vigorous agreement from Christie.

Mostly, though, it was still Corzine versus Christie throughout, with Daggett "getting squeezed in the middle again," by his own admisssion. The man in the middle: Daggett centers his candidacy with property tax relief plan