Some of the television ads in the New Jersey governor's race may look familiar to viewers with long memories.

In the 1988 Pennsylvania treasurer's race between Democrat Catherine Baker Knoll and former U.S. Rep. Phil English, Knoll's campaign deliberately portrayed English as overweight.

"We were doing focus groups showing negative headlines about Phil," said Neil Oxman, who worked on Knoll's campaign. One woman saw a photo of English and said, "Is that him? Oooooh."

Oxman hired a still photographer and told him: "I want you to take the fattest pictures of this guy you can."

This year, in New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Corzine's campaign denies it is stressing Republican challenger Christopher J. Christie's weight in his ads, but analysts say it's pretty obvious that it is.

In a pair of television ads, Corzine questions Christie's ethics while running footage of him. In one, an announcer says Christie was "throwing his weight around" when he went the wrong way down a one-way street and did not get a ticket.

"It is not as subtle as perhaps they hoped it would be," said Sam Bradley, a Texas Tech University advertising professor who has studied the effects of political television ads.

"The videography focuses on portraying him as looking overweight with the camera focused on the midsection. There's a really huge fat prejudice that exists," he said. "It's pretty clear the words call into question the ethics but the visuals make him seem undisciplined and all the negative stereotypes that go with being overweight: lazy, slob, eat too much, no self control."

Though neither ad is running now, an almost daily stream of mail to voters shows the same unflattering images of Christie.

The Corzine campaign has "no interest in Christie's appearance," and relies on footage taken by trackers with video cameras who have been following Christie for months, said communications director Sean Darcy.

"We used the footage we have. Using footage of an opponent in a campaign is a standard practice," Darcy said, adding that complaints about the ads were "an effort to obscure the real issues confronting people in this state."

Campaigns routinely use the least flattering images of opponents they can find. Corzine has been hit as well.

The governor, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs & Co., looks to be gloating on a Web page and in a television ad funded by the Republican Governors Association, which has been spending millions on attack ads.

RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf said the group did not manipulate Corzine's image but used the photo to show that Corzine "is an evil financial wizard. Only a wizard would be capable of raising taxes and raising the deficit in three years."

Because Corzine has high negative ratings among voters, his campaign has tried to knock down the lesser-known Christie. Corzine's barrage of ads apparently is working. Independent polls showed that, by October, Christie's negative ratings were even with his positive ratings.

The Corzine campaign appears to be "throwing everything against the wall, hoping something will stick somewhere," said Ed Traz, a Republican consultant. "The question is not going to be about Chris Christie's waistband but the size of property-tax bills."

Twenty-one years ago, Philadelphia media-market viewers saw a full-length photo of English as an announcer said, "Take a close look at Phil English." Then the camera zoomed in. English, a Republican from Erie County, lost.

"I think voting is emotional, not intellectual," said Oxman, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant. "People had an emotional response. That's why we did it."

Oxman said he was surprised it took Corzine's campaign so long to play the weight card, arguing early in this race the governor would be well served to portray Christie as "a big fat bully."

English, now a Washington lobbyist, dismissed the ad against him as "a marginal factor in a campaign."

But he said personal attacks are hard to control.

"I think a candidate who plays games with images of their opponent in advertising really runs up to the edge of causing a certain backlash," he said.

James Angelini, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Delaware who has studied the effects of negative political ads, said they trigger the fight-or-flight impulse in voters, with most electing to flee.

Viewers "will disengage because they'll start having these feelings of uncomfortableness because of the negative tone. We, as humans, don't want to be exposed to negative content, period."

Angelini said Corzine is running the risk "of alienating those individuals who are overweight."

The backlash could most likely be fueled by the coverage the strategy is now getting, said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who has written extensively on negative political ads.

As an example, he said, in the 2004 presidential campaign Northeast viewers did not see the famous "Swift Boat" ads criticizing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War. They learned about them from media coverage wrapped in analysis of the tactic.

"One has to be careful here on the blowback," Geer said. "Making fun of somebody for being overweight - that doesn't sit well with the American public, particularly because a lot of people face that issue."

While the Christie campaign had been downplaying the weight ads, yesterday his campaign chairman, State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, said "the Corzine campaign is now resorting to pitiful, nasty, and disgraceful personal attacks."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight.

Christie said he has struggled with his weight since he stopped playing sports.

"I've worked on this problem for the last 25 years," he said, adding that he's lost 28 pounds in the last two and a half months.

As for the attack on his weight, Christie said his campaign had heard rumors that Corzine would use such footage but didn't think "he would go there."

"They say, 'throw your weight around,' and then they deny they mean anything by it. Come on. Do they think people are stupid?" he said. "They show a picture of me looking really big, and then they say, 'He throws his weight around.' They show a picture of my head looking three times its normal size and they think people don't get it."

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