New Jersey is set for a highly competitive governor's race that pits a former Marine who learned how to wield a shovel as a farm boy against a swashbuckling ex-prosecutor with a Jersey-size chip on his shoulder.

Democratic Gov. Corzine and Republican candidate Christopher J. Christie described themselves in those terms this week, at the start of a campaign that is expected to draw national attention.

Both contenders spent the first day of the contest reinforcing messages they delivered to loyal followers Tuesday night, each letting the other know just what he was in for between now and Nov. 3.

Corzine will center the race on linking Christie to former President George W. Bush, characterizing Christie's stands as vague and out of step with the mainstream, touting his own calls for compassion for society's most vulnerable, and launching attacks on Christie's tenure as the state's U.S. attorney.

"Our opponents promise the moon," Corzine said after receiving a strong endorsement from Vice President Biden on Tuesday.

"They want to cut government, increase spending, slash taxes, and balance the budget," he said and mockingly added: "They've got a secret plan. They won't tell you whose taxes they plan to cut."

Yesterday in Blackwood, after the swearing-in of Camden County Clerk Joseph Ripa, Corzine took on Christie, saying voters wanted specific answers to their specific problems.

"People expect a legitimate discussion on specifics at a time when their lives are specifically being hampered by the nature of the economy. It's very specific when somebody gets laid off. It's very specific when somebody's home goes into foreclosure. It's very specific when somebody loses their health care," he said. "People want to know what's actually going to happen in those circumstances for them."

Putting his own arsenal on display, Christie showed that he would blame Corzine for the state's fiscal crisis and high unemployment rates and taxes. He will characterize Corzine as a well-intentioned but bumbling governor who needs to be replaced by a Jersey guy with attitude.

"I have lived a New Jersey life," Christie proclaimed on primary night.

"We have a bit of a chip on our shoulder, but that's part of our charm," he said at his party. "It's that attitude I brought to the U.S. Attorney's Office seven years ago, and I guarantee you it is that attitude I will bring to the Statehouse in January."

Standing with a supporters and a handful of unemployed workers at the shuttered Griffin Pipe foundry in Florence yesterday, Christie blamed the closing on Corzine, saying it was "another example of what's happening in New Jersey to our economy."

He said Corzine "is simply out of touch. He can't relate to the plight that these people are having right now."

Because only New Jersey and Virginia elect governors this year, the Garden State campaign already has drawn national attention as Republicans and Democrats try to see it as a referendum on President Obama. And Obama will loom big in this race. Corzine had Biden with him on primary night to give star power to what could have been a routine reelection announcement.

"I think we will see the president coming into New Jersey at least twice this fall," Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin predicted. "He'll put his arm around Jon Corzine and tell people that if you supported him, then you need to support the governor. And if Obama still has an approval rating north of 60 percent, then it will make a difference."

Corzine will need that kind of help. Though he cruised through the primary with negligible opposition, his job-approval ratings have been poor for months and Christie has been beating him in hypothetical general-election races in polling since the summer.

There have been questions about the depth of support for Corzine, who grew up on an Illinois farm and became a chairman of Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank. At his campaign launch, roughly one-third of the arena's 2,400 seats were empty and many in attendance headed for the exits even as Corzine was speaking.

State Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Cryan said: "The party is united. . . . The party is enthusiastic. We're excited."

Analysts say what happens with the economy will dominate the election.

"My gut sense is public opinion is malleable and is really linked to people's personal economic situations," Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said. "If the economy improves, Corzine's approval improves."

Christie heads into the campaign with some wounds from the primary, in which conservative Republicans and Democrats attacked him for giving out no-bid contracts while he was U.S. attorney and for being vague on the issues.

Christie ran hard to the right to stave off former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. Corzine signaled that Christie must now explain to Democratic and independent voters why he is against abortion and gay marriage, wants to lay off thousands of state workers, and would reject federal stimulus aid.

At a Statehouse news conference yesterday, some of Corzine's surrogates got to work right away.

"We believe Chris Christie is, frankly, too far right, too conservative, a Bush conservative, and wrong for New Jersey," Cryan said.

Democrats showed a video that spliced together Christie sound bites. It included Christie labeling himself a "conservative," appearing with Fox News host Sean Hannity, and saying he is pro-life.

One portion showed Christie describing how he worked on Bush's campaign and how the former president appointed him U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

"We are not going to elect a pro-life governor in the state of New Jersey," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen).

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writers Adrienne Lu and Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.