By DAVID M. HALBFINGER – The New York Times
Democratic BlackBerrys up and down the East Coast started buzzing at 12:18 a.m. on Tuesday with news out of New Jersey: The Republican candidate for governor, Christopher J. Christie, had lent $46,000 to a subordinate and failed to disclose it as required by law.
For Democrats, who have watched, despairingly, as he galloped ahead of the incumbent, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, in the polls, it was a rare stumble by Mr. Christie, a former federal prosecutor running on a platform of ethics reform.
They were gleeful, and determined to strike. Into the wee hours and over the next few days, Mr. Corzine’s aides strategized with White House aides and other Democratic operatives about how to make it a national story, suggested loaded questions for bloggers and reporters to ask Mr. Christie, enlisted the state party to file a complaint with elections officials, and sent young staff members out to dog Mr. Christie’s events with signs spelling “$46,000.”
It is unclear what the misstep will mean for Mr. Christie, who quickly and profusely apologized. But the gaffe marked a pivotal moment, with both sides battling not only over the issue, but also about what this expensive, marquee governor’s race will be fought over.
Republicans, who cheered in July when a federal investigation resulted in corruption charges against dozens of local officials, believing they underscored Mr. Christie’s strengths, are now calling for him to focus on more conventional issues like property taxes, jobs and education.
Democrats, seeing a chance to turn a referendum on an unpopular incumbent into a referendum on a challenger with some holes in his armor, want to talk about nothing else.
“There’s a lot more optimism around Jon Corzine’s candidacy now,” said David Plouffe, President Obama’s campaign manager, who cut his political teeth in New Jersey. “When the real economic questions are put in front of voters, and now you’ve got questions about Christie’s character and ethics, there’s a pathway that’s a little wider. It’s still a tough fight and a little uphill, but there’s a pathway.”
New Jersey is enjoying outsize attention the year after a presidential election because it is one of only two statewide contests in the nation; the other is in Virginia. And New Jersey is still considered far more friendly to Democrats than Virginia is; the party holds a 650,000-vote registration edge, and a Republican has not won statewide in 12 years.
Still, what were once considered Mr. Corzine’s political assets now look a lot like baggage. He is a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs precisely at the high-water mark of revulsion against Wall Street. He is a proponent of expensive health care and prekindergarten programs at a time of growing nervousness about soaring deficits and ambitious spending plans.
Those who have lived through past New Jersey campaigns believe the contest will ultimately be decided on pocketbook issues. Mr. Christie, who spent seven years as a United States attorney, has compiled a withering indictment of the governor: higher taxes, unemployment higher than in New York or Pennsylvania, a business climate rated among the nation’s worst, an exodus of college students and corporations. Mr. Corzine said things would have gotten far worse had he not been in charge. But that is harder to prove, polls show that most voters do not buy it, and Republicans believe many people have run out of patience with the governor.
“There is such Democrat fatigue in this state,” said Kevin O’Toole, the Republican chairman in Essex County, which includes Newark. “Obama’s right, it’s time for a change.”
Worse still, for Democrats, Mr. Corzine has struggled mightily to excite the party’s base. Blacks and Hispanics have openly flirted with Mr. Christie over issues like school vouchers. Environmental advocates have already deserted Mr. Corzine. The Corzine campaign is aggressively lobbying gay men and lesbians to stick with the governor.
Mr. Corzine’s aides had been saying for months that they only needed to fight Mr. Christie to a draw on the subject of corruption, because they believe if the campaign is about the issues, they will win, given the Democrats’ registration advantage. But despite the campaign’s costly barrage of television commercials accusing Mr. Christie of cronyism, his disapproval rating is still only about half the governor’s.
That is why they began to grow excited this month, with the news that Karl Rove had spoken with Mr. Christie, as early as 2006 or 2007, about Mr. Christie’s interest in the governor’s office. The Hatch Act bars federal prosecutors from even testing the waters for a candidacy, and by Saturday, Mr. Corzine, speaking to liberal bloggers in Pittsburgh, was calling Mr. Christie a “lawbreaker.”
Some Democrats felt it was a stretch. But then, last Tuesday, another break: Mr. Christie came forward to acknowledge he had given a top aide in the prosecutor’s office a second mortgage to help her out of a financial jam, but failed to report it on his ethics filings and tax returns.
Full of outrage when announcing indictments, Mr. Christie was subdued but frank in owning and apologizing for his mistake. But he had to contend with questions about why his lapse — he had failed to report $420 in interest income on his taxes — would not have been worth prosecuting.
From Washington to Trenton to the governor’s adopted hometown, Hoboken, Mr. Corzine’s allies grabbed hold of the story as if it were a defibrillator.
Aides to Senator Robert Menendez put calls in to reporters pressing the attack. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. accused the United States attorney’s office — where the woman who received the loan from Mr. Christie is now second in command — of playing politics. The Corzine campaign filed a lawsuit seeking records of Mr. Christie’s communications with his old office.
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