Who won the week?

After trailing in the polls since February, Jon Corzine finally saw one where he led Chris Christie – even if only by a statistically insignificant one point. Several other polls also showed the race in a dead heat, or Christie only slightly ahead. Corzine outlined how he plans to slash the deficit in the next four years, although Christie jumped on him for planning it partly by extending a tax on the wealthy. And lieutenant governor candidates Loretta Weinberg, Kim Guadagno and Frank Esposito engaged in a contentious debate.

So who won the week? Two of our experts said Corzine, one picked Guadagno, and one chose nobody.

Patrick Murray, Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute

Winner: Kim Guadagno

Polls continue to show that Jon Corzine is cutting into Chris Christie’s lead, mainly from a shift of “soft” Christie supporters into the Chris Daggett column (although it’s not yet clear whether that will last).

The big news of the week was generated by a New York Times article about the subliminal emphasis on Christie’s weight in Corzine’s ads (an article in which I was quoted because of polling evidence that suggests the Republican’s physical appearance is important to some voters). This story garnered national television attention and overshadowed other news about the campaign, including the first ever debate among candidates for Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey.

It’s understandable why the national media ignored this historical event, but if you picked up a copy of the state’s largest daily newspaper this morning, you would not even know the debate had occurred last night. Of course, the campaigns themselves have also been doing as much as possible to keep their L.G. candidates out of the spotlight. If you’ve seen any of the gazillion Corzine billboards in New Jersey’s urban areas, you might think that President Obama is the incumbent’s running mate.

Focusing on the debate itself, though, each candidate accomplished what they came to Monmouth University to do. Senator Loretta Weinberg played the attack dog, Dr. Frank Esposito demonstrated that he is more than an academic, and Sheriff Kim Guadagno showed that she is quick on her feet, has a good command of the issues and can connect with voters.

It begs the question: Why won’t Christie’s campaign brain trust make her more available to the media? She’s a terrific surrogate for her running mate. It boggles the mind!

On the whole, I don’t think the week’s poll numbers and the ramped-up attention on Christie’s weight – which does matter to some voters – helped the Republican cause. However, the take away story for the week is that his running mate, Kim Guadagno, clearly has a future in New Jersey politics.

Editor’s note: The debate story did not make the Ledger’s first edition, but was online and included in subsequent editions.

Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University

Winner: No one.

The race for Governor has become a dead heat. Since Corzine has been behind for months, this was obviously good news for him. Democrats, convinced that they have a superior statewide GOTV (Get Out the Vote) program, like their chances when the race is this close. Most importantly, the Governor is now getting 75% to 80% of the Democratic vote, which is crucial if he is going to win. (He was at 65% back in July.)

On the other hand, it is harder to energize people when your candidate has an approval rating hovering around 38%, as Corzine does. In the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see if the Governor makes any kind of direct, personal appeal on television in an effort to raise his approval rating among the electorate.

Christie’s weak performance at the first debate was almost immediately followed by the poll results that showed the race to be neck-and-neck, though I am not sure one necessarily caused the other.

His running mate, Kim Guadagno, did quite well at the Lt. Governor debate. However, it is unclear if many people will actually change their vote because of it. This is for a few reasons. First, it does not appear that millions of voters watched or heard the LG debate on NJ12 and 101.5, neither of which reach the entire state. Second, the format – including the live audience that was allowed to cheer and hiss throughout the debate – made the whole thing a little bit of a circus. Finally, if Vice Presidential dynamics are any historical clue, the average voter is far more focused on the top of the ticket, and not the number two person.

So all that really came out this week was that the race had tightened to become a dead head with about three weeks to go, which is something that many observers expected from the beginning.

Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University

Winner: Jon Corzine

Most polls now indicate that the race is a statistical deadheat, which historically works to the incumbents advantage even when the playing field is level. But given Corzine’s enormous financial advantage heading into the final weeks of the race, in which he will spend at least another $20 million to the maximum of $5.5 that Christie will be able to spend because of his opting in to the state’s public finance option, it is clear that the momentum will continue to shift in Corzine’s favor unless Christie is able to pull a game-changer. Christie’s strategy of attacking Daggett is raising questions among many Republicans, particularly Republican legislators who want to see Corzine the focus of these attacks. We understand that Daggett is pulling Christie supporters into the Independent’s column, but as one reporter said to me this week, “you never punch down.”

Dan Cassino, professor of political science and pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University

Winner: Jon Corzine (who also wins for biggest blunder)

This week was unquestionably good news for Governor Corzine: polls showed him having closed the gap with Christie for the first time since voters started paying attention to the race. More importantly, the “Corzine=Obama” message that he’s been pushing seems to be working for him, as support among Democrats is firming up, if not as quickly as he might want.

Christie, on the other hand, has come under increasing pressure to release a more detailed economic plan, and is damned either way. If he doesn’t release it, he faces continuing criticism from his opponents and the media. If he does, he’ll either alienate conservatives (by raising taxes, which he has opposed), alienate moderates (by cutting services), or energize Democrats (by cutting unionized state jobs). He’s admitted that balancing the budget is going to take some politically unpopular decisions, and it’s clear that he’d like to put those off until after the election.

That said, Corzine’s campaign had the biggest blunder of the week, with a much criticized ad that seemed to be attacked Christie more for his weight than anything else. Christie’s weight may very well hurt him with voters, but in cases like this, a more explicit ad often leads voters to overcorrect, and could wind up helping Christie with his sinking favorable numbers.

Who won the week?