Former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie overcame a spirited challenge from Steve Lonegan in yesterday's Republican gubernatorial primary, setting up a general election contest against Gov. Corzine.
Christie, 46, of Mendham, Morris County, will attempt to become the first Republican elected in a statewide race since 1997.
But the governor last night declared he was ready for a battle that contrasts Republican and Democratic values.
"I am going to fight like hell for our values," Corzine told a crowd of Democrats in a West Orange arena.
Both Lonegan, the 53-year-old former mayor of Bogota, and Christie romanced conservative voters, but in the end the pragmatists in the GOP decided Christie was the best choice to face Corzine.
Extending an olive branch to Lonegan supporters, Christie's campaign chairman state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) said "Lonegan's been a force for good in New Jersey."
While the governor had marginal opposition, Republicans staged a strongly contested primary that gave voters a clear choice.
Christie earned the vote of Patti Robinson, 36, a Deptford information technology analyst who said, "I'm really sick of Corzine. Taxes are ridiculously outrageous."
This primary was carefully watched by the nation's political class. Only New Jersey and Virginia are set to elect a governor this year.
Christie sustained attacks during the race from Lonegan and a bevy of Democratic surrogates for Corzine who portrayed him as everything he fought against as a U.S. Attorney. The strategy appeared designed to take his greatest asset - a record for busting corrupt politicians - and say he was just as rotten as the people he jailed.
The hits centered on deferred prosecution agreements, which are contracts U.S. Attorneys award to law firms to monitor corporations accused of criminal wrong doing. Christie awarded no-bid contracts to his old boss, John Ashcroft, and David Kelley, a former New York U.S. Attorney, who oversaw an investigation that included Christie's brother, Todd.
A Democratic group called Mid-Atlantic Leadership Fund ran ads piously asking Christie to "cooperate" with congressional investigators looking into the contracting process. They said Kelley "refused" to indict Todd Christie "although he was among the worst offenders."
Kelley oversaw an investigation into improper stock trades. Todd Christie's company Spear, Leeds & Kellog Specialists L.L.C. paid a $16.4 million fine in 2004, but Todd Christie was not indicted. In 2008, Todd Christie signed an agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to stop improper trading practices.
Lonegan's chief political strategist, Rick Shaftan, said Democratic-financed commercials that were aimed at Christie actually hurt Lonegan.
He said the attacks against Christie showed Democrats were most afraid of the former U.S. attorney. This sent a message to pragmatic Republican primary voters hungry to beat Corzine that Christie was better suited for the job.
"If their goal was to hurt Chris Christie, it failed in such an inept way," Shaftan said.
With Democrats and the right attacking him, Christie abruptly changed his campaign strategy in late April and went on the offensive against Lonegan.
Previously, he had been ignoring Lonegan, refusing even to mention his name on the campaign trail. But in late April, he began airing radio ads against Lonegan's 2.9 percent flat income tax proposal, saying it would raise taxes on 70 percent of New Jersey taxpayers. By mid-May, Christie had a 20-point lead over Lonegan in independent polls, and returned to attacking Corzine.
By calling out Corzine for New Jersey's high taxes, debt level, and unemployment rate, Christie, too, took a shot at what some regard as Corzine's greatest strength - his financial background as former chairman of Goldman Sachs.
The attack served two purposes, analysts say. He was seeding his general election message, and showing the state's estimated one million registered Republicans that he could fight Corzine in the fall.
For his part, Corzine stayed behind the curtain, acting gubernatorial and letting surrogates attack Christie. His staff refused to react to criticisms made by Republican candidates.
But Democratic legislators and Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Cryan, a Union County assemblyman, chided Christie for being vague on budget and tax matters, having ethical lapses and being aligned with former President George W. Bush - lines of attack which will likely play out in the general election.
The winners of last night's primaries have 30 days to pick a running mate. For the first time, New Jersey will elect a lieutenant governor.
And they will have to contend with independent gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett, who has support among environmentalists.
All 80 Assembly seats are up for grabs this year, with a handful of primaries yesterday. In a special election, Camden County Democratic State Sen. James Beach and Republican Joseph Adolf were unopposed in their respective primaries for the right to finish the term of Democrat John Adler, elected to Congress last year. And Camden Council President Angel Fuentes overcame a primary challenge to replace Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz Perez.
Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or email@example.com.