In New Jersey Debate, a State Senator Tries to Deflate a Confident Christie

The New York Times

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono, on Tuesday at William Paterson University. Mr. Christie has a formidable lead in polls.

 

With less than a month before Election Day, it was a rare sign that, in fact, there is a race for governor in New Jersey this year.

At the candidates’ first debate on Monday night, Gov. Chris Christie just had to hold the line on poll numbers that show him walking away with a margin of victory big enough to make him a formidable contender for the Republican nomination for president.

His Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono, was looking to make an impression, something she has struggled to do since entering the race with little name recognition and little money to increase it.

Ms. Buono did strike a few hits in the debate at William Paterson University.

When a journalist on the panel asked Mr. Christie why New Jersey has lagged at “the bottom of the pack” in economic recovery since the recession — with unemployment high, and revenues and personal income struggling to grow — Mr. Christie argued that his predecessors had left the state in a terrible economic hole.

“You have to man up,” Ms. Buono responded. “You’ve been in office for four years. It’s time to own your record and defend your record.”

The debate did show the stark differences between the candidates. Mr. Christie reiterated his support for school vouchers; Ms. Buono said they would undermine public schools. Mr. Christie, who vetoed a bill that would have allowed gay marriage and is challenging a trial court decision that says the state must allow it, reiterated his belief that the issue should be settled by the voters in a referendum. Ms. Buono, who supports gay marriage, accused him of “compromising the dignity of our gay brothers and sisters” to preserve his electability among conservative voters in a Republican presidential primary.

Mr. Christie tried to tie Ms. Buono to the Democrat he beat in 2009, Jon Corzine, saying she had presided over 154 increases in taxes and fees during her time in the Legislature. Ms. Buono said that Mr. Christie had cut property tax relief, particularly hitting middle-class families, and had raised fares and tolls on state transportation and roads.

“Your whole tenure has been to support and protect millionaires at the expense of the middle class and the working poor,” she said. “You are the last person to talk about taxes to anyone.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Christie’s personality, too, was matter for debate. A panelist pressed him on some of the words he has used to describe constituents or opponents: “stupid,” “idiot,” “jerk” and “arrogant S.O.B.”

“By using and by choosing that type of language, are you sapping the dignity out of the governor’s office?” she asked.

“In fact, quite the opposite,” Mr. Christie replied. “What the people of New Jersey want is someone who’s real and who will tell them the truth as he sees it. That’s what leadership is about.”

He held firm when pressed that it might set a bad example for children. “Folks have to know that if people act in a certain way, they’re going to be called out on it,” he argued, adding, “It’s who I am and I’m not going to change.”

Mr. Christie showed a softer touch when the candidates were asked whether they liked anything about each other. Ms. Buono, all but actually holding her nose, offered, “He’s good on late-night TV.” Mr. Christie: “She’s obviously a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service.”

Ms. Buono managed to get out some of her personal story, noting that she had put herself through a public university and law school after her father died unexpectedly when she was 19.

But asked why she was having such trouble gaining traction in a state with a huge margin of Democratic voters, she tried to deflect the conversation, arguing that the governor was more interested in running for president than being governor, and was more media star than true leader.

“Don’t let the glossy magazine covers and late-night wisecracks fool you,” she said.

When a panelist interrupted and asked her to answer the question directly, Ms. Buono argued, “People are only just beginning to pay attention to this race.”

The candidates will meet for one more debate, on Oct. 15, before voters go to the polls on Nov. 5.

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