New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Democratic challenger Barbara Buono debated same-sex marriage, taxes and the economy last night in a debate that also touched on the Republican’s presidential prospects in 2016.
Christie brushed off a question about his White House aspirations while Buono, a state senator from Metuchen who has struggled against the popular incumbent, challenged him to say whether he’d finish another four-year term if re-elected.
“People have been talking about me running for president since 2010,” Christie said, adding that he wouldn’t predict what he might decide in three years. If re-elected, he said, he would do the best job he could, while not letting his future plans interfere with his performance in the office.
Christie, 51, the only U.S. governor seeking re-election this year, has a wide lead over Buono, 60, in fundraising and in voter polls. He has brought in $6 for every $1 she’s collected, while the most recent survey had him leading by 34 percentage points. A landslide win in a Democratic stronghold may provide him with a launching pad for a 2016 presidential run.
Buono charged Christie with mishandling the state economy, urging him to acknowledge that he hasn’t sufficiently increased jobs or economic growth. The governor said his administration had cut taxes and curbed rising property levies while taking steps to undo budget damage left by a decade of largesse under Democrats, including Buono.
“What the people of New Jersey want is someone who’s real and tells them the truth as he sees it,” Christie said during the hour-long debate -- their first of the campaign -- at William Paterson University in Wayne.
“That’s what I’ve done for four years: I’ve looked them in the eye and told them the truth,” the governor said. “Sometimes they were truths they were uncomfortable with. Sometimes they were truths they didn’t want to hear. But that’s what leadership is about.”
Buono, a lawyer, took up her party’s standard this year after more-popular Democrats, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, chose not to challenge Christie. Booker instead is running for an open U.S. Senate in an Oct. 16 special election.
During several heated exchanges, the Democrat knocked Christie for suspending property-tax rebates, vetoing same-sex marriage legalization and failing to lower college costs. She said his economic policies haven’t worked, with hundreds of thousands of residents still jobless.
“Four years ago we had the highest unemployment in the region,” Buono said. “Today, with 400,000 out of work, we still do.”
“It’s time to put New Jersey first and bring jobs back,” she said. “I’m going to be the kind of governor to do that. I will lift up the middle class.”
“You have to man up,” Buono told Christie. “You’ve been in office four years and it’s time to own your record and defend your record.”
Christie responded that he is proud of his accomplishments, saying that voters should decide such a weighty issue as allowing same-sex marriage, not politicians or the courts.
The debates -- another is set for Oct. 15 -- hold little in the way of risk for Christie, according to Julian Zelizer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University.
The Republican has two prime objectives, Zelizer said by telephone from the school in Princeton, New Jersey. By expanding his victory margin compared with 2009, Christie will increase his sway with the Democrats who control the legislature. At the same time, a knockout win also makes him appear stronger as a contender for the White House, Zelizer said.
“The debate plays into this dual strategy,” Zelizer said. “It’s not about who wins or loses at this point. It’s about how much he can increase the margin of victory and the implications it will have for him as governor and if he runs for president.”
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, in 2009 became the first in his party to win a statewide election since 1997 when he ousted then-Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat and former U.S. senator, 48 percent to 45 percent.
The Republican has ridden high voter-approval numbers since gaining plaudits for his handling of Hurricane Sandy last year. Christie faulted his party’s congressional leaders over delays in storm-related aid and embraced President Barack Obama when he toured damaged areas.
Buono was elected to the Senate in 2001 after serving three terms in the state Assembly and the Metuchen town council. She rose to Senate majority leader before losing the post two years ago amid Democratic party infighting.
Christie led Buono 64 percent to 30 percent among 1,249 likely voters in a Sept. 19-22 Quinnipiac University survey, which showed the senator making no progress in denting his lead. A third of Democrats backed the governor and 61 percent of women said they would cast ballots to re-elect him, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
The governor has brought in $12.6 million for his campaign, including almost $8.1 million in public matching funds, according to state Election Law Enforcement Commission records. His fundraising stops have included an event at the Palo Alto, California, home of Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Buono has collected $2.1 million, including almost $1.1 million in state funds, since the race started, according to commission figures.