IT'S ALWAYS the Republicans' year in New Jersey - at least until voters actually cast ballots in the fall election.

Over the course of the 2000s, Garden State Democrats have seen one governor crash and burn in a high-profile scandal, and a second who's faced his own ethical missteps while grappling with the worst fiscal crisis in a generation.

Yet, Democrats still have managed mostly to strengthen their grip on Garden State politics - aided greatly by the cross-currents of national politics that have driven moderates in the Northeastern United States away from the GOP in droves.

But last night, charismatic and fairly moderate Republican Chris Christie claimed a solid victory that gave the GOP the matchup it wanted, a strong candidate to challenge a weakened Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.

In a victory speech before cheering supporters in Whippany, Morris County, Christie sought to set his tone for the fall campaign by calling Corzine a "nice guy" but a bad governor, and the Republican pledged that as governor he would "bring an out-of-control government back under the control of its people."

Corzine, who appeared at a victory rally with Vice President Joe Biden, clearly wants to keep the focus on voter anger at national Republicans.

"I'm not about to put my trust in the same people who gave us George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or John Ashcroft," Corzine said. "America doesn't need to be Bushwacked again."

So, with Christie's primary victory, is it finally the Republicans' year in New Jersey - for real?

"They want to win," Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia historian and politial pundit who's been tracking the race, said last night as Christie pulled ahead in early returns. "They're so tired of losing that they're willing to bend a little - although Chris Christie is hardly a liberal."

Christie, 46, defeated by a healthy margin his main challenger, the conservative mayor of Bogota, Steve Lonegan - who appealed to the right wing of the party with an aggressive ad campaign on talk radio that took Christie, a former federal prosecutor, to task on taxes and other core GOP issues.

Garden State Republicans apparently felt the more-centrist Christie has the best chance to recapture the governor's mansionsince 2002 and the era of another "Christie" - Christine Todd Whitman, also a moderate.

Christie put up a solid showing against Lonegan and a long-shot former state rep, Rick Merkt.

Corzine, the former Wall Street chief executive officer who spent millions of his own fortune to help elect himself to the U.S. Senate and then to become governor in the 2005 election, trounced a field of little-known rivals to gain the Democratic nod.

But despite his money and his incumbency, it is Corzine who will enter the fall campaign as the underdog.

In addition to the governor's Goldman Sachs pedigree not being a huge plus with so many voters mad as hell at Wall Street, there is also boiling voter anger over high taxes and political corruption in the Garden State.

As a result, Corzine's approval rating in recent months has hovered around the 40 percent mark, typically a death knell for an incumbent.

And GOP leaders believe that they've found the perfect foil in Christie, who won convictions or guilty pleas against 130 public officials in both political parties during his recent stint as U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

But no one is writing off the Democrats in a state that has tilted increasingly to the left in presidential races - President Obama received 57 percent of the vote last year - while also electing a Democratic Legislature, as well as both senators and eight out of 13 members of the U.S. House.

According to the polls, the vast majority of New Jersey voters - between 75 percent and 90 percent - identify themselves as Democrats or as independents, and it is for the affection of this latter group that the governor's race will be fought.

Perhaps the toughest decision facing Christie this fall, as noted this week in a piece by Amy Walter for the National Review, is how much he will embrace the rightward drift of the national GOP.

Walter mused whether "Christie will politely decline invitations from folks like [Mitt] Romney (the onetime moderate New Englander who's re-branded himself a conservative), Newt Gingrich or Michael Steele, all of whom may want to use his campaign as a launching pad for their own national political ambitions," but who may prove toxic to Christie in such a left-leaning state.

The political pundit Sabato said that a Corzine win in November will mean that New Jersey has moved from its history as a state with a fierce independent streak - at least in gubernatorial races - to a solidly Democratic shade of deep blue.

"If they can't beat Corzine, with all of his negatives, then the Republicans should just close up shop in New Jersey and move all of their people to Missouri or Virginia, where the elections are still winnable," he said. *