In their first encounter as gubernatorial contenders, Democratic Gov. Corzine told Republican nominee Christopher J. Christie "I'm not afraid of you" as the two politely shook hands last night.

They met at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association's traditional opening of the governors race: a forum at which both major-party candidates are seen together for the first time.

The encounter, just another moment in what is shaping up to be a bitter fight, took place as Corzine was preparing to speak. He left the head table and walked over to Christie, who was nearby shaking hands with attendees. The governor told his opponent that some had said he was afraid to walk into the room with Christie. "I'm not afraid of you," he told his challenger.

Christie has been ahead of Corzine in independent polls since last summer, but he faces an uphill battle in a state that has trended Democratic in recent years.

Addressing the group of about 400 business leaders from around the state, Corzine offered a chorus of "talk is very cheap but the facts are stubborn" as he answered a series of Christie attacks on his budget and economic programs.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has said people and businesses were leaving the state because taxes are high, but Corzine said companies were choosing to locate in the state because of its good schools and salaries. Those who leave soon learn that the effective tax rates in other states are higher than New Jersey's, the governor said.

He said that his $28.6 billion budget was lower than the budget in effect when he took office in 2006, that New Jersey had passed the nation's first economic-stimulus program, and that he had cut the government payroll by $3 billion.

Pitching to the audience of business leaders, Corzine said his predecessors had raided the unemployment-insurance fund but he had stopped the bleeding, which saved businesses $300 million this year. He said he had cut business taxes and sped the permitting process.

As for Christie's recent remarks that the governor had caved in to organized labor by approving a no-layoff clause in an amended contract in exchange for furloughs and postponement of a raise, Corzine said he could lay off workers - with a penalty - if the economy worsened. He said that he had cut union workers' wages 7.5 percent, adding that "no other governor has been able to open an existing contract and get a wage giveback."

After his 20-minute speech, Corzine left the event at the Princeton Hyatt Regency early to attend an AFL-CIO meeting in Atlantic City.

Then it was Christie's turn.

"I heard the governor say a little while ago facts are stubborn things, and they are," he said. Christie said government job growth had outpaced private-sector job growth by 15-1. He also decried high unemployment rates, job losses, and increased taxes.

He called Corzine's budget "an assault on the middle class of this state. There is no other way to interpret the budget."

Christie said Corzine's cut in property-tax rebates "reduces the amount of aid our suffering, suffocating citizens get from the tax burden."

Christie also threw back Corzine's "talk is cheap" line, saying: "Talk from Jon Corzine is especially cheap."

He said that in his 2005 campaign Corzine had promised to increase property-tax rebates, but that he had cut them for many citizens this year.

Though he wasn't invited to speak at last night's forum, independent candidate Chris Daggett worked the room, saying he was looking forward to getting on the stage with Corzine and Christie in fall gubernatorial debates.

The race between Corzine and Christie had been revving up even before the June 2 primary, with Christie trying to focus as much criticism on Corzine as possible while ignoring his Republican rival. Corzine's loyalists spent the later weeks of the primary campaign taking shots at Christie.

Today, the Democratic chairs of the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees plan to hold a news conference attacking what they consider Christie's "reckless" budget plans. Christie has said he would cut taxes and spending, but he has not delivered a detailed proposal.

Corzine has been running cable-television ads attacking Christie on social issues, mainly targeted at strengthening his support among Democrats and liberal-leaning independent voters.

Yesterday, the Republican Governors Association shot back with two cable and broadcast ads running statewide that accuse Corzine of breaking 2005 campaign promises to lower taxes and increase job growth. The Christie campaign is not on the air yet.

Corzine is using his personal fortune - made as the chief executive of Goldman Sachs - to fund his campaign, meaning he can spend whatever he thinks it will take to win reelection. Christie is relying on state matching funds, limiting his spending to about $11 million in the general election.

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