Sleepy New Jersey Governor’s Race Turns Fiery in First Debate

NEWARK — The low-profile governor’s race in New Jersey shed its sleepy veneer on Tuesday night as the first general election debate quickly descended into an hourlong rumpus that was both acerbic and wonkish with the two candidates repeatedly lacing into each other’s positions and personal background.

Though the moderators tried to keep the two candidates from confronting each other, the personal invective at times overshadowed any attempts at addressing specific questions from the moderator or the audience.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Republican candidate, repeatedly sought to bring up Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street bank where Philip D. Murphy, her Democratic opponent, worked for several years. The references drew boos at one time from the audience who seemed to view them as off topic.

For his part, Mr. Murphy, over and over, tried to paint Ms. Guadagno as being attached to Gov. Chris Christie “every step of the way.”

But the repeated reference to Mr. Christie, one of the most unpopular leaders in recent state history, gave Ms. Guadagno her strongest line of the night, drawing cheers from supporters and a raised eyebrow from Mr. Murphy.

“The inconvenient truth for Phil is that Chris Christie is not on the ballot in November,” she said. “I am.”

Ms. Guadagno, under mounting pressure to chip into Mr. Murphy’s double-digit lead in recent polls and seizing the chance to make her case before a television audience, kept returning to an issue that she has made central to her campaign: property taxes.

“The first thing we can do to help the middle class is to have a thriving middle class,” she said. “And the way we help the middle class is lowering property taxes.”

She brought up property taxes while discussing a variety of issues, including school funding, immigration, job growth and the importance of keeping college graduates from leaving the state.

And she used the issue to attack Mr. Murphy on two fronts: his promise to provide the state’s full share of school funding, estimated by Mr. Murphy to be about $9 billion, and his tepid response to whether he would continue to seek an arbitration cap that limits raises for public workers, such as police officers and firefighters.

“I want to directly answer the question that you put to Phil Murphy, one I have yet to hear him answer,” she said. “I would extend the arbitration cap because it saves the taxpayers of New Jersey billions of dollars.”

Mr. Murphy sidestepped the initial question on the topic, saying that he was waiting for “all the facts.”

When Mr. Murphy pledged to fully fund the state’s pension obligation, a moderator pressed him on how he would do that.

“We have a very credible plan,” Mr. Murphy responded.

The moderator was unimpressed. “I still haven’t heard how.”

While vague on numbers in certain areas, Mr. Murphy offered plenty of data in others, including the grim condition of the state’s economy and the precise number of days that Mr. Christie and Ms. Guadagno had been in office — 2,821, according to Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy not only took advantage of Ms. Guadagno’s ties to her boss, but also sought to link her to the one elected official who is disliked by a large majority of the state: President Trump

He repeatedly made reference to the “Guadagno-Christie” administration and called Ms. Guadagno, “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Mr. Murphy promoted himself as a check on Mr. Trump’s policies, declaring that New Jersey would protect undocumented immigrants.

“If need be, we will be not just a sanctuary city, but a sanctuary state,” he said.

Ms. Guadagno countered by channeling lines that were familiar on the presidential campaign trail: describing crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Murphy quickly retorted.

“What you’re doing is what Donald Trump does,’’ he said. “You pit us against them. You cast a pall over entire communities of people. It is un-American.”

Recent events also triggered acrimonious exchanges.

Citing the massacre at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Mr. Murphy said that he would sign gun control legislation that Mr. Christie has vetoed and called for stricter background checks. Ms. Guadagno said she would not “take guns out of the hands of honest law-abiding citizens.”

The debate roiling Hollywood – the avalanche of reports accusing the producer Harvey Weinstein of rape and sexual harassment – also came up in the debate.

Mr. Murphy denied, when asked by a moderator, ever accepting money from Mr. Weinstein, a deep-pocketed Democratic donor.

“I didn’t ask for and I didn’t get one dime from this guy,” said Mr. Murphy, calling him “heinous” and adding that “anyone who did should give it back.”

Ms. Guadagno wasn’t satisfied by his answer. “I want to call Phil Murphy a coward,’’ she said. “Phil Murphy didn’t start to talk about Harvey Weinstein until after my campaign today listed the tens of thousands of dollars that he raised” as a part of his position as a finance chair for the Democratic National Committee. “Shame on him for not coming forward earlier,” she added.

“I literally have no idea what she’s talking about,” Mr. Murphy snapped when she finished.

Amid the insults, there were moments of levity. When boos from the crowd began to interrupt Ms. Guadagno, she stopped midsentence, saying she would wait them out.

Mr. Murphy joked, “Those were your folks.”

Ms. Guadagno laughed. “Well said.”

And when a microphone malfunctioned as a college student was asking a question, Ms. Guadagno invited him onstage, telling him to speak into her microphone that was clipped on her white jacket.

When he paused, she joked, “My husband is in the front row.”

As for Mr. Christie, whose name was cited and derided often, he was not at the debate supporting his lieutenant governor. He probably was not even watching it live on TV.

Instead, he told reporters earlier on Tuesday, that he was going to “TiVo” it.”

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