New Jersey's gubernatorial race, winding down to Tuesday's election after a consistently brutal campaign, is a dead heat between Democratic Gov. Corzine and Republican Christopher J. Christie, in a state where no Republican has won a statewide race in a dozen years.

"This should have been a race where no Republican in his right mind would have taken [Corzine] on," said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.

Corzine has the advantages of incumbency and vast personal wealth; he might pump in $30 million before the campaign is over. He also enjoys an almost 2-1 Democratic registration edge over Republicans.

But Christie has given Corzine a vigorous challenge, fighting him in urban, Democratic strongholds and at kitchen tables in middle-class suburbia.

The gubernatorial race has drawn national attention because it is one of only two this year, and some see it as a referendum on President Obama and his Democratic Party. And looming over it all has been a sour economy.

Corzine has had trouble convincing voters that things could have been a lot worse if he hadn't trimmed spending and bucked up social services. And Christie decided to stick to a plan of not giving sound-bite answers to complex problems, promising instead to pick apart the government and make informed choices. That opened him to bruising attacks from Corzine and independent Chris Daggett.

Throughout the race, voters have been cranky, scared, and frustrated by mounting home foreclosures and crippling unemployment rates. They have been looking for someone to blame and trying to figure out who, if anyone, could turn things around.

"It's close because people are angry. They're frustrated. They are upset, and in the American democratic system, we allow those expressions of public frustration to be vented through elections," Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said. "So Jon Corzine is in a tight race because the economy is lousy. . . . If the economy was going at a 5 percent growth clip, I don't think we'd be seeing this."

Corzine, a 62-year-old liberal Democrat, is a former farm boy and Marine who became a Wall Street millionaire. Christie, a 47-year-old former U.S. attorney born in Newark, N.J., is a conservative Republican and one-term Morris County freeholder. Daggett, 59, a former environmental commissioner with a doctorate in education, emerged as a genuine factor two weeks ago only to slide back into single digits in the latest independent polls.

Each is on a 21-county bus tour, stopping at diners and rallies, walking Main Streets, and charging up volunteers.

Those volunteers will be making calls to voters, knocking on doors, and dropping off literature through the weekend. They are being aided by live computer updates telling them which voters they've already visited or called.

That information will be used Tuesday as the campaigns pinpoint their votes and get them to the polls - in some cases, driving them. For Daggett, the challenge is showing voters just where he is on voting machines. In 19 of the state's 21 counties, he is bundled with less-significant candidates.

Corzine has spent millions pummeling Christie on his best asset - a career as U.S. attorney that included a perfect record of securing convictions or guilty pleas form 130 corrupt politicians. The ads questioned Christie's ethics.

Christie, meanwhile, used advertising to argue that Corzine's policies put the state in bad shape to withstand a tanking economy.

The campaigns and the independent groups supporting them are jamming the airwaves with ads, some even getting slots during the World Series.

Obama is coming to New Jersey for a third time to help Corzine, attending rallies in Camden and Newark today. Christie is touring the state with former Republican Govs. Christie Whitman and Thomas H. Kean and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The appearances by Obama and others by Vice President Biden are evidence of the significance of the election. Virginia is the only other state electing a governor this year.

Some analysts see this year's races as predictors of the 2010 congressional and gubernatorial contests. But such off-year races never have been reliable indicators, according to a historical study by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Still, the national party groups plan to use New Jersey's results as a selling point to raise money for coming federal and state races. So far in New Jersey, they have spent millions on advertising and field operatives to make sure voters get to the polls.

Together, the Republican and Democratic governors associations have spent almost $8 million. Christie, who is accepting state campaign subsidies, is limited to spending $11 million, while Corzine has spent $23 million and counting.

Though Christie had led in the polls for almost a year, Corzine tripped up his momentum with relentless television ads criticizing the Republican's support of no-frills health-insurance policies. Corzine said the plan would deny women mammograms; Christie said he never intended to deny women cancer screenings. By October, according to polls, undecided independent women were making up their minds - for Corzine.

Christie wouldn't let Corzine take it easy in the cities, even opening up a campaign headquarters in Newark and appearing frequently in Camden. He promised school vouchers and more charter schools for students in failing urban districts, and an aggressive attack on street crime. He said he would give tax breaks to middle-class families who moved into cities.

Each time the president came to stir up Democrats, Christie welcomed him. He has run ads featuring African Americans and Latinos, saying they voted for Obama in 2008 but were going to vote for Christie this year.

Christie doesn't expect to win the cities, but if he can trim the bump Corzine needs there, particularly in urban Hudson County, the governor could be in trouble, said Rider's Dworkin.

Both candidates sought to appeal to women with their choices for lieutenant governor, in the state's first-ever election for a governor-in-waiting.

On campaign stops last week, the major candidates were making their final pitches.

As preschoolers romped through a Pennsauken playground, Corzine said he wanted voters to ask themselves one thing: "Who can get us through and out of this recession the soonest and the strongest?"

A few miles away, at an assisted-living center in Washington Township, Christie said, "I've never felt more confident than I've felt in the last couple of days."

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