Shortly before he took the reins of a government bleeding red ink and mired in ethical muck, Jon S. Corzine relaxed by tackling a different kind of challenge.

It was Thanksgiving weekend 2005, after a hard-fought campaign and a couple of months before he would be sworn in to his new job.

Corzine and the youngest of his three children went on an Aspen, Colo., getaway. But the slopes, Jeffrey Corzine recalled, were "unskiable." Yet Jon Corzine went all day, riding the toughest trails. Such determined gusto, according to his children, is typical.

Jennifer Corzine-Pisani said her father would stumble and fall, and have snow in his beard and glasses knocked askew. It wasn't always pretty, "but he always made it down the hill," she said.

Someone watching that day would have seen Corzine's approach to governing as well. Full of grit, sure of his path, and seemingly oblivious to obstacles, he has charged headlong at some of the state's trickiest issues.

But from his first day in Trenton, Corzine has faced questions about his ability to learn in a hazardous political world and match his ambition with political skill.

"Part of the selling point to him about being governor was the opportunity to be an executive. He felt that that was similar to his position as [chairman] at Goldman Sachs, but the reality is it's not," said Carla Katz, a former state employee union leader who once dated Corzine. "You don't just get to decide because you're governor."

Corzine, 62, grew up about 30 miles southeast of Springfield, Ill., in Willey's Station, a cluster of farms so small it doesn't have its own zip code. He rose to the heights of Wall Street and politics through determination and a work ethic forged growing up on the family farm.

But his tendency to pursue bold plans without consensus has caused him troubles, leading notably to his ouster from Goldman Sachs.

When Corzine left the company, he was reportedly worth more than $300 million, a fortune that helped launch his political career. He spent $60 million in a quick pivot to the U.S. Senate, and $40 million more in his race for governor. He also funneled millions to political bosses who later backed his candidacy.

Corzine campaigned as a change agent, pledging to overhaul everything from the state budget to New Jersey's ethical morass.

He even brought his own lexicon. Within months of taking office, his phrase "scrubbing the budget" had turned from quirk to cliche.

Communication trouble

In his formal introduction to Trenton, his inaugural speech, Corzine read from notes, barely looking up, absorbed in his own message. Problems with communicating would come to plague his term in office.

Corzine didn't sit down with key players and didn't keep in touch via phone. His team members saw themselves as businesslike reformers dealing with a combative Legislature, even though it was run by fellow Democrats. Lawmakers saw his administration as paternalistic or, worse, arrogant.

"He didn't understand how you connect politics with the government," underestimating the value of building relationships to move his agenda, said Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex).

"Every time you have a conversation, not only are you showing the other person that you respect them and their views, but you're gathering information. You're finding out what they want," said Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., a Camden County Democrat with more than 20 years in the Legislature. "A member who just got off the phone with the governor spends all day saying they just got off the phone with the governor."

One-on-one, Corzine is low-key and self-deprecating, joking that he is a "washed-up banker." Favoring simple gray or navy suits - no flashy cuff links or watches - Corzine betrays little of the Wall Street giant he used to be.

But even after he has spent nearly a decade in government, few in New Jersey politics say they know him well. When Corzine recently mentioned that his older son, Joshua, had had open-heart surgery years earlier, even some veteran staffers were surprised.

Corzine, who spends hours poring over documents, peppers his comments with statistics, not emotion or anecdotes. He believes solid arguments should win the day.

Yet he mangles his syntax and veers off topic. While telling business leaders about a pension change that would cap exorbitant retirement benefits without harming middle-class state workers, Corzine concluded his pitch by saying his plan "protects individuals who have more modest accumulations of wealth for retirement purposes."

"The best orator in the world? No," said Harold Hodes, a Democratic strategist who has advised Corzine. "Except for when it comes to issues he's passionate about, and that comes across."

'Wants to help people'

When he talks about education or programs for the needy, Corzine is all focus.

Corzine toured the South Jersey food bank in Pennsauken over the summer. Once the cameras stopped rolling, he took aside the food bank's chief executive, Val Traore, for a private talk.

He wanted to know who was coming in - newly unemployed people hurt by the recession or regulars who always lived on the financial edge? Did the pantry have enough storage? They spoke for 20 minutes, Traore said.

"He's a pure liberal, OK?" Hodes said. "He wants to help people."

Corzine, whose family received government farm subsidies in the 1950s and '60s and who boasts about going to a public college, the University of Illinois, came to politics with visions of a benevolent government that could expand health care, improve schools, and aid the poor.

But he knew he would have to stabilize wobbly state finances to pay for any big ideas. His first proposal was to raise the sales tax.

When he faced a revolt from Roberts and fellow Assembly Democrats and he shut down state government to get his way, Corzine looked like a force that could bend Trenton to his will.

But then Democrats tucked more than $300 million of pet projects into the budget, an embarrassing spending spree after the governor had preached fiscal responsibility.

To his critics, that ugly win signaled uneven results to come. Republicans say Corzine's political skill and fight too often fall short of his promise.

Progress has come with significant compromises: He won concessions from labor unions, for example, but had to give back costly trade-offs in future years, and public opinion polls show that few respondents believe the governor has performed well.

"At times he strikes out with a certain resolve. There are other moments where he seems rudderless," said State Sen. Kevin O'Toole, an ally of Corzine's GOP challenger, Christopher J. Christie. "There's theory and there's practice. You can be really good at theory, but if it comes down to practice and you can't implement that, it remains true and good only in the classroom."

Corzine's allies say he has accomplished far more than he gets credit for. His calls for austerity, they argue, have stopped the kind of last-minute spending he saw in his first budget. And, Democrats say, he has faced the state's toughest problems, including ethics, property taxes, and spending.

"He's not afraid to take the big swings at big issues," Roberts said.

Two of his biggest swings were in late 2007 and early 2008, when Corzine tried to overhaul the state's long-dysfunctional school-aid system and clean up its debt. His faith in policy details and in himself produced disparate results: one home run and one clumsy, costly strikeout.

The nuanced school plan, which aimed to help low-income students in struggling districts, won state Supreme Court approval this year, giving New Jersey a unified, comprehensive school-funding system for the first time since the 1970s.

Another governor might have touted a big win. Corzine spends little time looking back. The day after lawmakers approved his school-reform plan, he strode into Trenton's ornate Assembly chambers with a sweeping debt-reduction plan.

But his proposal was complicated and overreaching, paying off $16 billion of debt at once, and the price tag was enormous: up to 800 percent highway toll increases.

Corzine, who had declared he was "willing to lose my job if that's necessary to put our fiscal house in order," tried to sell the plan in town-hall meetings. His 45-minute PowerPoint presentation and pie charts failed to persuade.

In less than two months, the plan was buried. Corzine's approval ratings tanked, and with the recession exacerbating his woes, his numbers have yet to recover.

Corzine conceded that he tried to do too much too fast. Several allies said he had learned that he must work with lawmakers and local interest groups.

"He sees that people do play hardball politics in New Jersey, and they're always fighting for their districts, which I think is new to him," Hodes said.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, an influential Union County deal-maker and Corzine ally, described the governor as "raw" and "naive" when he entered public life. But he praised Corzine for adding more experienced political hands to his staff.

"He certainly has received a political education," Lesniak said.

Corzine makes no apologies.

"The bigger issues you take on, the more disagreements and challenges you'll have," he said. "There are people that defend the status quo, there are people that defend regions and particular interests, and it's the governor's job to represent the whole state."

Asked over the summer about the differences between politics and business, he said it was easier to develop and attack a unified strategy in the private world, where hierarchies are clear.

"You can be the head of the party, but that doesn't mean you have discipline over the party," Corzine said. "In a private-sector world, you determine who gets paid, who gets promoted, who stays, who goes."

Politics, Corzine said, doesn't conform to business' "narrowly focused objectives." Finding a "common thread" to unite disparate interests is the challenge of democracy, he said.

Corzine still sees himself as a change agent who has made progress, but he wants to do more in a second term.

First, he must win a tight reelection race.

To claw back in the polls, he has used a sharp-edged campaign fueled by more than $19 million of his own money. Gone are the sweeping promises of 2005 that filled a 95-page booklet.

This week he brought in two of his party's greatest communicators: President Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

After a rally Monday with Vice President Biden, Corzine began a phone interview with a deep sigh - "14 days," he said, until the election. Win or lose, he said, this would be his last election of any sort.

"I think, serve two terms, and I'll go back to being a grandfather. Or I'll start being a grandfather," he said.

Corzine, nearly killed in a 2007 accident that broke more than a dozen bones, has worked to spend more time with his family.

Still, people who know him describe a competitor who would never walk away from a fight.

His daughter said that's why the governor, a high school and college basketball player, urged his children to play sports. He loved to see athletes facing challenges.

Corzine-Pisani can still hear her father on the sidelines during her toughest tennis matches, yelling, "Get your tail in gear."

"When there's a failure at something, it's something he really believes: You don't give up," she said. "If it's hard, you just get going more."

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com.

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Jon S. Corzine

Age: 62; born in Willey's Station, Ill.

Residence: Hoboken, N.J. Grew up in Willey's Station.

Family: Divorced with three grown children; dating Sharon Elghanayan.

Political experience: Democrat. U.S. senator, 2001-06. Elected New Jersey governor in 2005.

Education: University of Illinois, bachelor's degree in 1969. University of Chicago, master's of business administration in 1973.

Occupation: Goldman Sachs bond trader, 1975-80; partner, 1980-99; chairman and chief executive officer, 1994-99. BancOhio assistant vice president, 1973-75. Continental Illinois National Bank officer, 1970-73.

Notable: Corzine nearly died in a car crash on the Garden State Parkway in 2007 and has become a strong advocate of seat-belt use. He is known for spending his own fortune on his campaigns, including $40 million during his first run for governor.

On the issues: He has struggled to balance the state budget in a time when revenues are falling; some say he has not made necessary cuts. He's overhauled how the state subsidizes schools and says he would sign laws allowing medical marijuana and gay marriage.

Quote: "By making the right decisions now, New Jersey can and will emerge from this national economic crisis stronger, sooner, and more prosperous."

Source: AP{12562158735811}