In their first encounter as gubernatorial contenders, Democratic Gov. Corzine told Republican nominee Christopher J. Christie "I'm not afraid of you" as the two politely shook hands tonight.

They met at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association's traditional opening of the governors race: a forum at which both major party candidates are seen together for the first time.

The encounter, just another moment in what is shaping up to be a bitter fight, happened as Corzine was preparing to speak. He left the head table and walked over to Christie, who was nearby shaking hands with attendees. The governor told Christie that some had said he was afraid to walk into the room with Christie. "I'm not afraid of you," he told his challenger.

Christie has been ahead of Corzine in independent polls since last summer, but is facing an uphill battle in a state that has trended Democratic in recent years.

Addressing the group of about 400 business leaders from around the state, Corzine offered a chorus of "talk is very cheap but the facts are stubborn" as he answered a series of Christie attacks on his budget and economic programs.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has said people and businesses are leaving the state because taxes are high, but Corzine said companies are choosing to locate in the state because of its good schools and salaries. Those who leave soon learn that the effective tax rates in other states are higher than New Jersey's, the governor said.

He said that his $28.6 billion budget is lower than the budget was when he came into office in 2006, that New Jersey passed the nation's first economic stimulus program, and that he has cut the government payroll by $3 billion.

Pitching to the audience of business leaders, Corzine said his predecessors raided the unemployment insurance fund but he stopped the bleeding, which has saved businesses $300 million this year. He said he cut business taxes and sped the permitting process.

As for Christie's recent remarks that the governor caved in to organized labor by giving them a no-layoff clause in an amended contract in exchange for furloughs and postponement of a raise, Corzine said he can lay off workers – with a penalty – if the economy worsens. He said he cut union workers' wages by 7.5 percent, adding that "no other governor has been able to open an existing contract and get a wage giveback."

After his 20-minute speech, Corzine left the event at the Princeton Hyatt Regency early to attend an AFL-CIO meeting in Atlantic City.

Then, it was Christie's turn.

"I heard the governor say a little while ago facts are stubborn things, and they are," he said. Christie said government job growth has outpaced private sector job growth by 15 to 1, decried high unemployment rates and job losses, and increased taxes.

He called Corzine's budget "an assault on the middle class of this state. There is no other way to interpret the budget."

Christie said Corzine's cuts to property tax rebates "reduces the amount of aid our suffering, suffocating citizens get from the tax burden."

Christie also threw back Corzine's "talk is cheap" line saying, "Talk from Jon Corzine is especially cheap."

He said that in his 2005 campaign Corzine promised to increase property tax rebates but has cut them for many citizens this year.

Though he wasn't invited to speak at tonight's forum, independent candidate Chris Daggett worked the room, saying he was looking forward to getting on the stage with Corzine and Christie in fall gubernatorial debates.

This contest between Corzine and Christie was revving up even before the June 2 primary, with Christie trying to focus as much criticism on Corzine as possible while ignoring his Republican rival. Corzine's loyalists spent the later weeks of the primary taking shots at Christie.

Tomorrow, Democratic chairs of the Senate and Assembly budget committees plan to hold a press conference attacking Christie's "reckless" budget plans. Christie has said he would cut taxes and spending, but has not delivered a detailed plan.

Corzine has been running cable television ads attacking Christie on social issues, mainly targeted at strengthening his support among Democrats and liberal-leaning independent voters.

Today, the Republican Governors Association shot back with two cable and broadcast ads running statewide that accuse Corzine of breaking 2005 campaign promises to lower taxes and increase job growth. The Christie campaign is not on the air yet.

Corzine is using his personal fortune made as Goldman Sachs CEO to fund his campaign, meaning he could spend whatever he thinks it would take to win reelection. Christie is relying on state matching funds, which limits his spending to about $11 million in the general election.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.