Christopher J. Christie was in shirtsleeves, standing in the parking lot of the Forked River Diner in Ocean County during Memorial Day weekend.

A few feet away, traffic clogged the very patch of Route 9 that locals believe Bruce Springsteen memorialized in "Thunder Road."

Despite the heat and the cranky tourists eager to begin a season of partying and relaxation, Republicans jammed this campaign stop and embraced Christie. They weren't just shaking his hand, they were hugging him, and, very naturally, he was hugging them back.

The Republicans in New Jersey haven't won a statewide race in a dozen years. They've been embarrassingly out-fund-raised by Democrats and reduced to the sidelines in Trenton.

But there was the sense among these loyalists that maybe this man, the man friends describe as everybody's big brother, would end the drought and return the GOP to power.

In the long gubernatorial campaign, this had been a good day, full of heartfelt support. But the race would turn ugly soon enough.

Jersey politics is a blood sport, and governor's races are the bloodiest of all. Christie, who balances genuine personal warmth with cool pragmatism in battle, knew that truth from the start.

But the onslaught of attack ads from the well-heeled campaign of Democratic Gov. Corzine has been bruising, personal, and highly effective, turning Christie's yearlong lead into a dead heat, according to the latest independent polls.

Christie says his opponent has crossed a line, distorting his career as a nonpartisan prosecutor who went after Republicans and Democrats alike. But political observers say Christie also made it easy for Corzine and other Democrats to caricature his ties to the Bush administration and to tar him as overly partisan.

An instinct for politics

Christie grew up in a world of politics in Livingston, the son of an accountant and an office worker. And he exhibited a politician's instinct for people from his earliest years.

Mystery writer Harlan Coben, a boyhood friend who remains a strong supporter, remembers walking up to the edge of the Livingston Little League field, nervous because he'd missed half the season. A 10-year-old Christie approached, shook Coben's hand, and introduced himself.

"He was trying to make me feel welcome, which is really weird for a kid that age," Coben recalled. "I didn't know him. But he kind of went out of his way."

They played baseball together up through high school, where the Livingston Lancers, with Christie as catcher, became state champs.

"He would include the person who seemed farthest in the corner, who seemed the loneliest - he would go up and talk to the guy and help bring him into the fold," Coben said.

At 14, Christie volunteered in former Gov. Thomas H. Kean's first, unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. Christie was elected to student government in high school and at the University of Delaware, where he met his wife, Mary Pat, a Paoli native.

After college, it was off to law school at Seton Hall University and then a job at the firm of Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci in Cranford in 1987, where he began volunteering to work for Republican presidential candidates.

From 1993 to 1997, he ran for office four times, winning once, a seat as a Morris County freeholder in 1994. With its rolling hills, gated estates, and high concentration of Republicans, Morris County is nothing like the gritty cities of New Jersey, except that in both places the politics is rough and dirty.

Christie won his seat after inaccurately claiming that the county prosecutor was investigating Christie's opponents. They sued him for defamation and, to settle the case, Christie made a public apology.

Three years later, opponents used the same knife on him. They said Christie tried to use county money to pay legal bills for a defamation suit filed against him by an architect whom Christie helped fire. It wasn't true - and this time Christie sued, and ultimately settled.

Two years later, he was New Jersey counsel to former President George W. Bush's campaign, and by 2001 he was appointed U.S. attorney.

Prosecuting with flair

By many accounts - and many, many headlines - Christie's tenure as U.S. attorney in Newark was an unforgettable one from the moment he was sworn in at a lavish affair at Newark's Performing Arts Center.

"The conventional wisdom was he wouldn't pursue cases against politicians because he was a politician himself," said former First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Chiesa. "That couldn't have been further from the truth."

Christie marshaled the office's resources to trudge for seven years through the vast septic field that is New Jersey politics, earning a perfect record of prosecuting corrupt politicians. According to U.S. Justice Department figures, in 2006 and 2007 Christie's office had the most corruption convictions of any U.S. attorney district in the nation.

With an eye for the dramatic, Christie held big news conferences on federal courthouse steps in Newark, Trenton, and Camden. When Camden County State Sen. Wayne Bryant was indicted for selling his office in exchange for a high-paying, low-show job, Christie called Bryant a "disgrace" and his crimes "disgusting."

Prosecutors said they appreciated the attention and respect Christie drew to their work. The media found the stories irresistible.

There was the Camden County judge who traveled to Russia to have sex with a minor, the Hudson County executive who shook down a doctor for cash and Viagra, and the fund-raiser who videotaped his brother-in-law having sex with a hooker so he could send the video to his sister at a family gathering.

They all went to jail.

There were times, though, when Christie's actions raised cries of political interference.

On the eve of the Democrats' annual convention in Atlantic City in 2006, word leaked out that Christie had subpoenaed records of a nonprofit that had rented a Union City house from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.). Menendez, while in Congress, had helped fund the nonprofit.

His opponent, Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr., had centered his campaign on allegations that Menendez was a corrupt Hudson County boss; the subpoenas seemed to confirm that.

Menendez was never charged with wrongdoing, and the election-season subpoena was precisely what Democrats cited as an example of how former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales politicized the Justice Department.

A year later, as Democrats met again in Atlantic City, Christie gathered the media to report the bust of a dozen public officials. All but one of them were Democrats - including two up for reelection that year.

Christie brushes aside questions of politics.

"The whole idea of things being politically motivated just doesn't pan out," he said, "because they're all [found] guilty."

On top of the news conferences, Christie would lecture groups on the debilitating effects of corruption.

It was all like a warm-up for a statewide campaign, the one for which Republicans had yearned for years.

In Corzine's crosshairs

Christie kicked off his campaign in early February. Standing inside a shuttered five-and-ten in Haddon Heights, he used part of his announcement to presciently tell voters that the wealthy Corzine would spend millions trying "to convince you that I am not the man you have gotten to know over the last seven years."

Christie has run hard on the theme that he is the same man who as a swashbuckling U.S. attorney secured convictions or guilty pleas from more than 130 sleazy politicians: Elect him governor, and he will rescue the middle class from Trenton.

But soon, the attacks came. Corzine's ads aired repeatedly on television and painted a far different portrait: Christie doesn't care about women. The rules don't apply to him. He gave a loan to a subordinate and failed to report it on his income taxes. He gave seven lucrative contracts to colleagues, including his old boss, former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He gave a contract to a former prosecutor who oversaw an investigation of his brother, a stock trader whose company was fined for making improper trades.

Political analysts say Corzine's campaign even made an issue of Christie's weight.

The allegation that he gave a subordinate a loan and failed to report it drew blood - and Christie publicly called it a "mistake."

But it was Corzine's attack on his brother that Christie found hardest to take emotionally.

They had shared a room growing up in Livingston, played Wiffle ball for hours after school, and went to college at the University of Delaware together. This month they even played hooky from the campaign trail to see their beloved Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Todd Christie was a stock trader whose company, Spear Leeds & Kellogg Specialists, was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for making improper trades. Though the SEC ultimately found Todd Christie guilty of no wrongdoing, it fined his company.

While U.S. attorney, Christopher Christie had given David Kelley, the former New York U.S. attorney who oversaw the investigation, a contract for monitoring the rehabilitation of a company accused of improper practices.

Christie defended the contract, saying he never discussed his brother's case with Kelley. Kelley has confirmed this. But Corzine's ad writers said Christie gave a contract to "the prosecutor who let Christie's brother suspected of stock fraud off the hook."

"Yeah, it hurts," said a reflective Christie on a recent afternoon. "I feel a sense of responsibility both as an older brother and as the guy who decided to do this. I put my brother into this public scene. So, yeah, it does bother me. We talk about it. We've talked about it, and there's no problems between us about it. We understand that it's part of how, unfortunately, the governor has decided to conduct this race."

But Christie soldiers on, confident he can deliver for the faithful. On the campaign trail, he demonstrates the same emotional IQ that Harlan Coben first sensed on the Little League field all those years ago.

Where does that ability to read people come from? "I'm Sicilian and Irish," he said with a chuckle. "I'm an emotional guy."

In the time remaining before Election Day, he swings through the state, running a campaign that centers on his promise to rescue the state's middle class from "suffocating" taxes.

But with a net worth estimated at $3.8 million, he is far removed from the average New Jersey worker, who earns about $1,000 a week, according to U.S. Census figures.

Christie says he understands their plight because he knows where he started. His family moved up from a Newark apartment to a one-bathroom Livingston home. He and his wife, who have four children, struggled in a cramped apartment while he finished law school.

To Republican stalwarts, he still clearly connects, as he did all those months ago in the parking lot of the Forked River Diner, despite the relentless attacks.

"I come from a very middle-class background," he said. "My mom and dad both worked their whole lives, so I think that's the way you relate to the people in Springsteen songs or people I meet in the campaign. . . . Anybody who's come up that way can relate to people who are struggling because they know, there but for the grace of God go I."

Christopher J. Christie

Age: 47; born in Newark.

Residence: Mendham. Grew up in Livingston.

Family: Married with two daughters and two sons.

Political experience: Republican. Morris County freeholder, 1995-97; lost reelection primary in 1997. Lost primary for state Senate seat in 1995. Fund-raiser and New Jersey legal counsel for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

Education: University of Delaware, bachelor's degree in political science in 1984. Seton Hall University, law degree in 1987.

Occupation: Lawyer. U.S. attorney for New Jersey from January 2002 until resignation on Dec. 1; previously was a partner specializing in securities law and appellate practice at the Cranford-based firm of Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci.

Notable: As the state's top federal prosecutor, Christie prosecuted more than 130 elected and appointed political officials, including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, former State Sen. Wayne Bryant, and ex-Senate President John A. Lynch Jr., without a single acquittal.

On the issues: Christie says he would cut corporate and income taxes and require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to increase taxes in the future.

Quote: "I am ready to begin the work to solve our problems and optimistic that together, we can change New Jersey."

SOURCE: Associated PressEndText

For previous coverage of the N.J. governor's race, go to http://go.philly.com/njgovrace

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