COMMENTARYThe expectation of what could happen in a debate – one candidate blows it – rarely matches the reality of what does happens when the candidates go toe-to-toe. Almost never does a candidate slip up in a major way.
Last night’s debate among the three major gubernatorial contenders proved that rule.Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett engaged in a sometimes spirited back-and-forth bandying but at the end of the night nothing much had changed. For 90 minutes inside a New Jersey Network studio in Trenton the three bobbed and weaved as a panel of three journalists and a host of voters from around the state pummeled them with questions. But at no time did any of them suffer what could be considered a campaign changing blow. All three stuck to now familiar themes.
For the governor it’s that he’s made tough decisions. New Jersey, he maintains, is in better shape now than when he took office. That’s debatable.
For Christie it was that Corzine has been a failure. Christie repeatedly said he would cut taxes but he didn’t share with the rest of us exactly how he’ll do that. There’s a reason for that. He doesn’t have a believable plan.
For Daggett it was simply that he’s not the other two. He’s the one with a defendable, creditable tax plan.
When the final words had been spoken it was clear that Daggett had the best night. He was the most intellectually engaging, the one with new ideas. And he was entertaining.
Beyond that, he expertly used every opportunity to plug his tax plan that he says would reduce property taxes by 25 percent while expanding the sales tax to currently not covered services. He even used a question on same sex marriage (he supports it) to reiterate the provisions of his tax plan. He was relentless in pushing his plan.
Daggett’s problem is the latest Quinnipiac Poll found 54 percent oppose raising the income or sales tax to ease property taxes and 84 percent don’t know him.
Still Daggett’s plan generated even more attention because neither Christie nor Corzine had anything similar to offer.
Christie tried to gloss over the property tax issue even though it was raised repeatedly. He talked about reducing government spending by cutting fraud, waste and abuse. That’s the triumvirate used by candidates who don’t have any real way of dealing with budget problems. It never has worked and never will. There just isn’t enough waste, fraud and abuse to have a significant impact on the budget problem.
Christie also talked about getting municipalities to share services, about regionalization and about consolidation. Good ideas but with every local official jealously guarding his or her home turf, it’s not likely Christie will be able to change anything. Even if he could, it wouldn’t produce the type of savings to bring property taxes under control.
Corzine was left to defend the status quo and his administration’s handling of property taxes, saying he put a cap in place.
Here’s the problem for Corzine. Most voters don’t even know there’s such a cap. The Quinnipiac Poll found that 85 percent think there should be a cap on property taxes.
Kind of hard for Corzine to tout his 4 percent cap when almost nobody – especially those paying the taxes - knows there is a cap.
What Corzine also didn’t have was a vision of the future. He offered no ideas for the next four years and even seemed stumped when asked about it. Shouldn’t a governor seeking another term have some thoughts on that?
At times the exchange between Corzine and Christie was feisty with each appearing ready for a fight. The two played well the role of the last angry man and that only served to make Daggett more attractive.
As the debate rolled on, Daggett looked better and better, coming up with the night’s best lines.
By the end of the hour and a half, it easy to imagine that given a choice, viewers would rather grab a beer with Daggett than the other two.
Simply put, Daggett was fun; Christie and Corzine weren’t.
Looking at the race objectively, it’s virtually impossible to write a scenario that has Daggett emerging as the winner. But in the debate he showed he sure is an attractive candidate.
All of this isn’t good news for Christie. The Monmouth University Poll as well as Quinnipiac has Corzine closing the gap on Christie. Daggett is helping him do that. In one poll Daggett has 12 percent, up three points in a month. In that same time, Christie’s numbers dropped 4 percentage points.
That decline was registered before the debate - before Daggett demonstrated he has substance.
Expect the next series of polls to show a further erosion of Christie’s numbers while Corzine’s remain stagnant.
For the past months Christie has reverted to generalities when talking about property taxes and government spending. That strategy seemed to work for him. But with his lead evaporating maybe it’s time that he starts talking specifics.
Maybe it’s time for Corzine to offer voters his view of the state’s future.
And maybe it’s time for both Corzine and Christie to look to Daggett for an example of how to be a candidate that voters deserve.
Josh McMahon was the political editor of The Star-Ledger and also served on the newspaper's editorial board.