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Women pivotal voters as N.J. governor's race tightens

As the New Jersey governor's race tightens up, both major party candidates are scrambling for independent women voters - a large group whose members are beginning to make up their mind.

As the New Jersey governor's race tightens up, both major party candidates are scrambling for independent women voters - a large group whose members are beginning to make up their mind.

About 400,000 of those voters - up to 15 percent of the overall turnout - are expected to head to the polls on Nov. 3, according to Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray.

"Independent women are a huge battlefield in this kind of contentious election," said Ben Dworkin, a political scientist at Rider University.

Independent women who were undecided in July, as well as those who were with Republican Christopher J. Christie, seem to be swinging toward Democratic Gov. Corzine and independent Chris Daggett, according to the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released yesterday.

In July, they went for Christie over Corzine by 42 percent to 27 percent. In yesterday's poll, independent women were for Corzine over Christie, 38 percent to 37 percent.

Fourteen percent remain undecided - and Corzine and Christie are waging a pitched battle for them.

Since June, Corzine has been targeting women with television ads contending that Christie's health insurance plans could cut mammograms. Insurance companies in New Jersey are mandated to cover mammograms for women over 40 and younger women who have a family history of breast cancer.

And the Corzine strategy appears to be working.

"We see the polls tightening up because of women," said Corzine's pollster Joel Benenson. "We're targeting that group because it was a group where we were underperforming."

In recent days, Christie has been forced to clarify and defend his position on mandate-free health insurance policies. He's running a television ad, and held meetings with women in Bergen and Camden Counties, to say his call for no-frills insurance policies would not cut mammograms and other mandates.

To drive the point, his campaign filmed a television ad that has his wife, Mary Pat, sitting beside him as he tells viewers his mother was a breast-cancer survivor thanks to early detection with a mammogram.

And he had harsh words for Corzine, telling a group of women in Bergen County's Ridgewood Village Hall that the governor's campaign "is scaring people to try to win an election, and that's why I answered it, because it's personal to me and because you deserve better. The governor should have to answer to this. The governor should have to answer to this disgraceful behavior on his part."

Corzine, though, continues his relentless attacks and this week started running an ad calling Christie "completely deceitful" about his health plan.

Earlier this week, Corzine's running mate, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, said Christie just doesn't get it.

"The best characterization I can say is that he doesn't understand the implications of his own policies. If, in fact, he doesn't understand what selling mandate-free insurance means in the state of New Jersey...," she said. "He's trying to backtrack by doing what he's done many times before when he gets caught - blame somebody else. It's not his policy, but it's what we are all saying about it."

Weinberg sponsored the mandates for early breast-cancer detection and said mandates existed because insurance companies were unwilling to cover some tests and treatments.

Montclair University political scientist Brigid Harrison expects the battle over women to get even nastier and eventually center on abortion.

Corzine supports abortion rights, while Christie said he opposes them but would not seek to change the law.

"It could be a wedge issue because Christie had to define a position so starkly in the primary. He is not afforded the luxury of being able to waffle in the general," she said. In the primary, conservative Republican Steve Lonegan forced Christie to publicly state his abortion position.

"Because New Jersey tends to be a pro-choice state, my thinking is the Democrats will use that against him," Harrison said.

Christie's running mate, Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, is pro-choice.

Typically, the bulk of independent women voters break for the Democratic candidate in New Jersey, but Corzine continues to suffer from low voter approval ratings overall. This remains the case even as a Quinnipiac University poll and the Monmouth poll showed the race is getting closer.

The 527 likely voters interviewed by the Monmouth poll between Sept. 24 and 29 put the race at a dead heat. Forty-three percent preferred Christie while 40 percent preferred Corzine. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Quinnipiac's poll of 1,188 likely voters taken between Sept. 23 and 28 put Christie ahead of Corzine by 43 percent to 39 percent, with Daggett getting 12 percent. It is the closest the two major parties have been in the poll, which had Christie at 47 percent and Corzine at 37 percent in late August. The margin of error in this latest poll is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, putting the race close to a statistical dead heat.

While Quinnipiac didn't specifically identify independent women, it showed that 46 percent of voters who define themselves as independent preferred Christie, while 37 percent preferred Corzine and 16 percent were for Daggett.

That both major-party candidates chose women running mates was an early appeal to women voters, said Rider's Dworkin.

As for the back-and-forth between the campaigns, he said, "This race is extremely volatile, so I'm not exactly sure how it all will play itself out."