Independent Chris Daggett is the only candidate in the New Jersey gubernatorial race with enough sense to walk up a stalled escalator. At least, that's what he's telling voters in his first television ad.

Though known in government circles, the former environmental commissioner has low name recognition among voters and little money in one of the most expensive television states in the country. He is betting on the ad to raise enough money to make him a presence in one of only two governor's races in the nation. Virginia also elects a governor this fall.

Daggett was preferred by only 9 percent of likely voters in last week's Quinnipiac University poll, which set Republican Christopher J. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, at 47 percent and Democratic Gov. Corzine at 37 percent.

So Daggett is trying humor to reach voters and potential contributors. It has actors resembling Christie and Corzine stuck on an escalator.

The Christie character shouts, "Hey, we're trapped here. Can't you idiots see that?"

The Corzine character holds a newspaper and mutters, "Someone will bail us out; they always do."

Striking a heroic pose, Daggett climbs the escalator and beckons a group of citizens to "follow me."

A voiceover then says, "Real leadership isn't about waiting for something to happen or threatening people. . . ." The ad ends with a direct appeal to viewers to contribute to the Daggett campaign.

Like Christie, Daggett is taking government subsidies for his campaign. So far, he has received $544,000 to Christie's $2.8 million, according to the latest figures available from the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, which awards the funds.

Corzine, who earned millions as a co-chair of Goldman Sachs & Co., is using his personal fortune to support his candidacy.

A strong week of television in the broadcast and cable markets in New York and Philadelphia costs about $1.5 million.

Daggett is not only betting his sparse funds on the ad, but he's risking being dismissed by voters, said Seton Hall University political scientist Joseph Marbach.

"The other side of an ad that's kind of flippant is that voters wonder how serious of a candidate is Daggett," he said.

Daggett's battle is even more difficult because of this region's political culture, Marbach said.

"The political culture here is one that really embraces the role of the political parties as having a function of distributing government perks and resources," he said. Voters in Vermont and Minnesota are more open to independent candidates because in those states, "politics is less of a profession and more of an obligation for citizens to participate," Marbach said.

Daggett's media consultant, Bill Hillman, said he had never seen more fertile ground for an independent candidate. New Jersey's gubernatorial funding program, which matches candidates' fund-raising by 2-1, gives an independent a chance to finance a competitive campaign. And, he said, voters are angry and frustrated over New Jersey's high cost of living and taxes.

"We know it's effective," Hillman said of the commercial's humor. "Most of the commercials on the Super Bowl are humorous because humor works."

The ad began running Monday night on broadcast and cable television in the New York and North Jersey markets. If the campaign makes enough money, voters and potential contributors in the Philadelphia and South Jersey markets will see it.

Corzine spent yesterday stressing education with an appearance at the newly rebuilt H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden to watch President Obama's speech to students. He also stopped at a pair of diners in Woodbury to shake voters' hands.

He noted in Camden that New Jersey has been rebuilding crumbling schools and that it has narrowed the achievement gap between white and African American fourth graders.

He also debuted a television ad taking credit for creating jobs and cutting the state budget, while bashing Christie.

Christie campaigned on Corzine's turf in solidly Democratic Newark, opening a campaign field office there yesterday and introducing Democrats for Christie, a group that includes a handful of elected Democrats who say they support the Republican.

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