Former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie began his Republican primary campaign for New Jersey governor yesterday, promising to "make the tough decisions without sticking my finger in the air to see which way the political wind is blowing."

Christie, in an appearance in Haddon Heights, then did something rarely seen in a competitive Republican primary: He talked about cities as if he were a Democrat.

"In order to grow our economy and improve our state, I will propose a plan to renew our cities," he said, promising to promote "public safety, economic growth, improved public education, and housing that working men and women can afford."

"Demanding change and accountability in urban education is not only necessary for us to have an educated workforce for New Jersey's future, it is the morally right thing to do for every urban family in New Jersey."

As he spoke, the crowd of about 150 in the former Fastow's 5 & 10 store grew silent. Christie's comments could be a risky move in a Republican primary campaign in which conservative activists may make up the bulk of the vote.

Asked why he had such a strong urban plank in his platform, Christie said, "I am who I am. After spending the last seven years working in Newark every day, I have come to firmly believe that the only way to improve our state is to improve our cities. We have to do it. It's a moral imperative. It's an economic imperative."

More predictably for a Republican, Christie promised to rein in state spending, demand accountability from government, streamline business regulations, and cut income and corporation taxes. He said he would not cut income taxes until after getting spending under control.

And, he said, he would gut the state's affordable housing program because it puts too much of a burden on municipalities and eats up too much open space. He said he would instead push for affordable housing in developed areas.

Christie motored through the state yesterday in a big black bus with his campaign banner on the sides and his wife, Mary Pat; their four children; his brother, Todd; and campaign supporters inside. The swing was designed in part to capture media attention in the state's two television markets. Earlier in the day, he spoke to about 200 supporters at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

His main theme was that his background as U.S. attorney from 2002 to 2008 qualifies him as an experienced executive unafraid to "make the tough decisions necessary to put our state back on the right track."

Reflecting a theme of bipartisan cooperation from the recent presidential campaign, Christie said the state's problems "are not Republican or Democratic problems, so our solutions must rise above partisan politics as well."

Shortly before he began his tour, Christie's supporters got good news from a Quinnipiac University poll that showed Christie beating Democratic Gov. Corzine by 44 percent to 38 percent. The poll of 1,173 registered voters taken between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2 had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

This was a major shift from a Quinnipiac poll in November that showed Christie losing to Corzine by 42 percent to 36 percent.

Clay Richards, the poll's assistant director, said that as more people have gotten to know Christie and identified him as the former U.S. attorney whose office secured guilty pleas or convictions of 130 elected and appointed officials, they have tended to like him.

Still, Christie continues to suffer from low name recognition, leading some analysts to say he is capturing most of the dissatisfaction with Corzine before defining himself to voters. That could become a problem if Christie does not give voters a clear sense of himself and if he allows other candidates to draw a negative picture of him.

"People are ready to rally around an alternative, but that's an initial burst of energy and excitement for Christie," said Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin. He said Christie and any other candidate who wants to win must show himself to have a serious understanding of the state's problems and plausible solutions.

"People are looking for maturity. If this [campaign] deteriorates into Pinocchio commercials and bogeyman commercials, that's going to turn people off," he said.

Already, Christie is being attacked by the right wing of his party with Internet videos of an interview in which Christie declined to say whether he would run in the governor's race. Foes have said his demurral made him appear indecisive. The interview occurred before Christie formally announced he would run in the GOP primary.

And he is taking heat from Democrats, especially U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, who has argued that Christie used his position as U.S. attorney to further his political career. Pallone's latest attack is a letter to then-acting Attorney General Mark Filip asking him to investigate whether the appearance of one of Christie's former deputies at a gathering at the Christie home with political figures violated ethical rules for Justice Department employees.

Officially, Democrats are ignoring the Republicans until after the June primary. Reacting to Christie's campaign, Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Cryan said yesterday that Corzine was "continuing to work to get New Jersey through the Republican recession."

As for the gelling GOP primary, the Quinnipiac poll said Christie was leading former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan by 44 percent to 17 percent. Franklin Township, Somerset County, Mayor Brian Levine got 5 percent and Assemblyman Rick Merkt of Morris County 2 percent.

Merkt and Lonegan tried to capture attention yesterday, with Merkt welcoming Christie into the race and Lonegan taking an endorsement from former Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano, a Bergen County Republican who ran in the 2005 gubernatorial primary.

Christie, who has party establishment support, plans to spend today swinging through the state announcing endorsements from political leaders in key areas, including Burlington and Ocean Counties.

Christopher Christie

Personal:

Age 46. Lives in Mendham, Morris County, with his wife and four children.

Occupation:

Lawyer. U.S. attorney for New Jersey from January 2002 until his Dec. 1 resignation.

Political resume:

Republican. Morris County freeholder, 1995-97; fund-raiser for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

Legal career:

Joined the Cranford firm of Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci in 1987; named a partner in 1993. Specialized in securities law and appellate practice.

Of interest:

As U.S. attorney, prosecuted more than 130 elected and appointed political officials - including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, former State Sen. Wayne Bryant, and former State Senate President John A. Lynch Jr. - without a single acquittal.

Source: Associated Press

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