A Republican Primary Conundrum: How Far to Run From Christie

ROCKAWAY, N.J. — The political postcard that landed recently in New Jersey mailboxes appeared routine: piling on the Christie administration as “failed” and tying the lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, to the “wrong direction” of the state’s fortunes.

In campaign season, such attacks against Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, arrive at a frequent clip. But this mailing was paid for by a fellow Republican seeking to succeed Mr. Christie: Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli.

“People would say to me you’re being critical and I would say I’m only being honest,” Mr. Ciattarelli said of his campaign’s language in an interview before an event here. “I’m a citizen first, and when I think an administration or a governor or a president has gotten it wrong, I think it’s important to speak up.”

With less than 40 days to go before the Republican primary for governor, the two Republican candidates vying to replace Mr. Christie are gauging how best to navigate their relationship with a member of their own party who has close ties to the president but is also among the least popular governors in state history.

Ms. Guadagno is leading in early polling — a new poll from Quinnipiac University released on Wednesday showed the lieutenant governor at 23 percent among likely Republican voters, compared with 12 percent among the same group for Mr. Ciattarelli in the Republican primary. And on Wednesday she picked up the endorsement of the comedian Joe Piscopo, who had been publicly flirting with a run for governor, but decided against it and instead endorsed Ms. Guadagno.

But Mr. Christie’s record low approval figures will make it challenging for any Republican to win, and the Democratic Party favorite, Philip D. Murphy, was leading Ms. Guadagno 50 percent to 25 percent in a two-way contest in Wednesday’s poll of likely New Jersey voters. The poll carried a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Given that backdrop, it is not surprising that neither Ms. Guadagno nor Mr. Ciattarelli has embraced Mr. Christie. At the same time, Mr. Christie still has pockets of support among Republican primary voters, especially in the northern and western parts of the state. A Quinnipiac poll in March found that about half of registered Republicans approved of the governor’s job performance.

Ms. Guadagno has the more delicate dance: As the second-in-command in the administration, she owns some of the record. And while she is trying to separate herself from the governor on certain issues, she also needs the support of Republican voters who have remained loyal to the governor.

She has had a relatively chilly relationship with the governor during his tenure that has only worsened on the campaign trail. In her stump speech, Ms. Guadagno has adopted a bit of a “hear no evil, speak no evil” style; she rarely, if ever, invokes the governor’s name. Not when she boasts about the state’s economy, and not when she laments the many problems facing New Jersey, including an underfunded pension system and public transportation woes.

Instead, she dishes out coy insults, like discussing Mr. Christie’s plans to renovate the State House in Trenton by invoking the term “Palace of Versailles,” and noting that she doesn’t travel around the state by helicopter.

Then there are the direct, public breaks from the governor, such as over a gas tax increase — which Mr. Christie ultimately supported after opposing it — or Mr. Christie’s plan to have Horizon, a private insurer, pay for the state’s drug treatment program.

But even on these issues, Ms. Guadagno goes to great lengths to avoid saying Mr. Christie’s name.

“You can negotiate and that’s one thing, and that’s something that’s perfectly legitimate,” she told reporters last month in response to a question about Mr. Christie’s public battles with Horizon, according to The Observer. “But to demand it and take it is another thing. I don’t think that’s something government should do.”

Mr. Ciattarelli has more freedom, having been a bit of a thorn in the governor’s side for years, and he has been upfront about criticizing the governor as he tries to eat into Ms. Guadagno’s lead.

He gave the governor a “D” in an interview with The Star-Ledger and has frequently criticized him as someone who has put his own ambitions above the state’s needs.

“Eight years of the Christie-Guadagno administration has gone by, and we still have a property tax crisis, school funding crisis, tax code crisis, affordable housing crisis,” Mr. Ciattarelli told a crowd gathered here Monday for a town-hall meeting that included his signature PowerPoint presentation.

Voters who came out to see Mr. Ciattarelli had similar sentiments.

“Given the popularity and public consumption of these policies, I would have to say a change would be in order,” said Jim Schanz, 59, a communications researcher from Hamilton who drove two hours to see Mr. Ciattarelli. But he cautioned that criticizing the governor and changing direction needed to be done within the framework of Republican politics. “We don’t want a change to the opposite extreme.”

Mr. Christie, for his part, has been responding, even before a lot of stones had been cast. During a February speech to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Mr. Christie said that Democrats and Republicans were promoting alternative versions of the truth.

“Either they’re lying or they’re going to increase taxes so much that people are not going to be able to live here anymore,” Mr. Christie told reporters, referring to promises being made on the campaign trail.

When asked if he was speaking about both the Republican and Democratic candidates, Mr. Christie smiled.

“Yeah, I’ve said there’s examples on both sides,” he said. “A little more stark on the Democratic side, but yeah, on both sides.”

Throughout the early stages of the race, Mr. Christie has continued to attack positions put forth by candidates, including criticizing Ms. Guadagno’s plan to audit state government spending in order to help cap property taxes.

Attacking the governor may prove necessary for both Ms. Guadagno and Mr. Ciattarelli, who will face an uphill battle in the fall against a Democratic nominee in an increasingly blue state.

“I think that most Republicans are savvy enough to realize that if a Republican is going to have even the slightest bit of a fighting chance against the Democratic nominee,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University, “they’re going to need to run away from Christie.”

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