Democratic Gov. Corzine winked as he extended his hand to independent Chris Daggett in a ceremonial handshake before the last televised debate in the tumultuous New Jersey governor's race.

Was it a facial tic or, as some wonder, something more - confirmation of a conspiracy theory running through Republican circles that Daggett is somehow being helped by Corzine?

Suspicion runs rampant when a candidate becomes a major factor in a race that appears to be a near tie between the big-party nominees.

Independent pollsters and analysts say Daggett's recent surge in popularity hurts Republican nominee Christopher J. Christie a little more than it hurts Corzine.

"Without Daggett, Christie would be in better shape," said David Redlawsk, a political scientist and director of the Rutgers University poll. "Corzine has simply sat where he is, not able to break that 40 percent number, while Christie has gone down as Daggett has gone up."

Redlawsk probed further a week ago by asking Daggett supporters whom they would vote for if they didn't pull for their candidate. Thirty-four percent said they would vote for Christie, and 28 percent said Corzine. Twenty-four percent said they wouldn't vote at all.

Daggett polled at 20 percent, the number that he has said from the outset of his campaign would signify a chance to win. When the poll came out, his campaign contributions went up, allowing him to buy more ads.

Sean Darcy, Corzine's communications director, denied that the governor's campaign was helping Daggett.

"We're clearly not propping anyone up," he said. "Anyone who knows Daggett knows nobody speaks for him or pushes him around."

Daggett dismissed the notion as "another Republican scare tactic to try to say an independent can't win a race or can't govern."

Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said Corzine was more worried about holding on to Democratic voters than throwing votes at Daggett. The "cavalcade of stars" visiting New Jersey - including President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, who stumped for the governor last week - did so to energize Democrats, Dworkin said.

Even before Redlawsk's poll, the Republicans determined that Daggett was damaging Christie.

Christie's campaign, supplemented by the Republican Governors Association, spent the last two weeks attacking Daggett, stepping up its attacks last week. It has tried to brand him as the "second Democrat" in the race, or "Corzine light" - appeals to voters it believes could drift his way.

"The Corzine campaign hopes [Daggett] attracts away anti-Corzine voters and gives them an alternative place to go other than Christie," said Mike Duhaime, Christie's political consultant.

Duhaime is aware of the conspiracy theorists but, like other Republicans, could not cite evidence that Corzine and Daggett were in cahoots.

"I think the people of New Jersey are fed up to the teeth with the two parties," said Hazel Gluck, a lobbyist and former assemblywoman who served in the inner circles of Republican Govs. Christie Whitman and Thomas H. Kean.

"People all across the country are fed up with the two parties, and this could be their way of saying, 'We've had enough of all of you.' " Gluck said.

Whitman went so far as to tell Fox News last week that Corzine's campaign was "urging people quietly to support Chris Daggett because, by doing that, they figure they'll split the independent vote."

Though she declined to be interviewed for this article, Whitman said through a spokeswoman that she had been quoted accurately.

"That she's a conspiracy theorist I find amazing for a woman who is intelligent and the former governor of our state," said Daggett, a former Republican who served in the Kean administration.

Winks aside, Daggett said, he's focusing on just one thing: "How can I continue to show people what I have to offer and then let the chips fall where they fall?"

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