With the candidates’ last faceoff before the Nov. 2 election, Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate represented one of Republican Jack Ciattarelli’s best chances to gain ground on incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy. And as in their previous debate, the mood was combative.

While Ciattarelli sought to cast the Democratic governor as an extreme progressive who failed to rein in spending or address the state’s perennial cost-of-living problems, Murphy said the election was a choice between moving New Jersey forward with his policies or reverting to “the bad old days.”

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a million in the Garden State, and polls have shown Murphy is ahead — though a Stockton University poll released last month indicated that his lead has narrowed from a double-digit advantage to 9 percentage points. If Murphy wins a second term, he will be the state’s first Democratic governor in more than 40 years to be reelected.

Like the first debate, the hour-long event at Rowan University in Glassboro featured a rowdy crowd whose boos and cheers at times grew so loud that moderators chastised them for drowning out the questions and eroding the candidates’ time.

Here were some key topics:

Government spending

Ciattarelli, a businessman and former assemblyman from Somerset County, has run a campaign centered on fixing the state’s economy and lowering taxes. On Tuesday, Murphy said Ciattarelli’s school funding plan would shortchange underserved districts by cutting their state aid, but Ciattarelli said the state funding needs a “flatter, more equitable” distribution.

Ciattarelli has also frequently called the state budget bloated. Asked twice during the debate which programs he would cut, Ciattarelli declined specifics and said he’d discuss it with the Legislature.

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Murphy said that his administration inherited a “complete mess” from Gov. Chris Christie and that his administration had made a full state pension payment, invested in previously underfunded public schools, and diverted proceeds from a new millionaires tax to middle-class families. “We’re paying our bills,” he said.

Ciattarelli said that if Murphy “had cut everybody’s property taxes in half, I wouldn’t have run for governor. I’d have endorsed him. People don’t want a handout, they want a hand up, and they want lower property tax in this state.”

Murphy retorted: “That is offensive. That’s another example of forward-backward. A handout? Come on, man.”

Pandemic politics

Ciattarelli said Murphy’s pandemic restrictions gutted the state’s economy. He’s also said that parents should decide whether their children wear masks to school and that while he supports vaccinations, he believes the government should not impose “heavy-handed” mandates.

“I believe my role as governor is to provide all the information people need to make a decision,” he said.

Murphy, who has seen his approval ratings grow thanks to broad support of his pandemic response, said: “There is a playbook. We know vaccines work. We know masking works.”

Asked why his administration has not yet done a full review of the high death rate in the state’s long-term care homes, Murphy said there would be a full accounting.

The return of Trump

Once a vocal critic of Trump, Ciattarelli has since said the former president’s economic policies were good for the country. Throughout the campaign, he has sought to strike a balance between a full embrace and condemnation of Trump. In their previous debate, Murphy said Ciattarelli’s attendance at a “Stop the Steal” rally last November should disqualify him from serving as governor.

On Tuesday, Ciattarelli noted that policies such as Trump’s repeal of the SALT tax had not helped New Jersey. He was asked if he would support Trump in a future bid for president, or whether he’d allow Trump to campaign for him in New Jersey. He sidestepped both questions.

“I’m not into endorsements, I’m not into other people campaigning for me,” he said. “I go out there and campaign on my own. I’ll win my own election.”