Former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie decisively turned back a spirited challenge from staunch conservative Steve Lonegan in yesterday's Republican primary for governor, setting up a general-election battle with Democratic Gov. Corzine.

Saying New Jerseyans are tough and can handle the truth, Christie told supporters last night that "if we get back to the basics that have always made us great, we can restore for the people the hope, the faith, the trust for our government."

The 46-year-old Christie, of Mendham, asked the crowd at a Whippany hotel: "Do you really want to change Trenton? All right, then let's start tonight by changing governors."

New Jersey's primary election was carefully watched by the country's political observers, eager to read national implications into what happens here. Only New Jersey and Virginia are set to elect a governor this year.

Republicans see Christie as their best shot to end a 12-year losing streak in statewide races. But the incumbent last night declared he was ready for a campaign contrasting 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.

Lonegan, 53, the former mayor of Bogota, conceded around 10 p.m., telling ardent supporters in an East Brunswick hotel: "I apologize that I did not give you the victory you so deserved."

He implored his disappointed followers to support Christie, saying: "We must have one common cause. We need to beat Jon Corzine."

Both Lonegan and Christie romanced conservative voters, but in the end the pragmatists decided Christie could best face Corzine. Turnout was light statewide.

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."

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 wrongdoing. 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 Democrat-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 proposal for a 2.9 percent flat income tax, 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.

But Democrats chided Christie for being vague on budget and tax matters, having an ethical blind spot, and being aligned with former President George W. Bush - lines of attack likely to play out in the general election.

All 80 Assembly seats are up for grabs this year, with a handful of primaries held 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 cburton@phillynews.com.
Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Edward Colimore, Megan DeMarco, Jan Hefler, and Adrienne Lu, and staff photographer Tom Gralish.