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Negative ads start early in N.J. governor's race

It's not even Labor Day, and the negative ads are flying in New Jersey's governor's race. Republican candidate Christopher J. Christie is running ads that mimic Hollywood trailers, featuring music that sounds appropriate for an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Several ads sneer at Gov. Corzine's past as a "Wall Street Wizard," with references to Gordon Gekko, the Wall Street movie character who embodied greed, and play up Corzine's status as a Trenton insider.

It's not even Labor Day, and the negative ads are flying in New Jersey's governor's race.

Republican candidate Christopher J. Christie is running ads that mimic Hollywood trailers, featuring music that sounds appropriate for an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Several ads sneer at Gov. Corzine's past as a "Wall Street Wizard," with references to Gordon Gekko, the Wall Street movie character who embodied greed, and play up Corzine's status as a Trenton insider.

Corzine, meanwhile, has an ad accusing Christie of wanting to cut mammograms from health-care coverage. Christie has proposed allowing insurers to offer basic policies that would cover checkups and catastrophic care.

Another ad, titled "Happenstance," directs attention to three no-bid contracts awarded by Christie's office and ends with the line: "A million lawyers to choose from, but it's Christie's three pals who got millions."

With a highly competitive race for the governor's seat this year, New Jerseyans can expect to see even more negative ads - and those, likely even more mean-spirited - on television or the Web as November approaches.

"Both campaigns have apparently decided that the way to go is to tear the other side down," said Maurice Carroll, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University. "New Jersey politics has never been what you'd call gentle, but this one strikes me as a bit more rugged than the standard."

New Jersey is one of only two states with a gubernatorial election this fall, which means the race has drawn national attention. Some have characterized the election as a referendum on President Obama, who has campaigned on Corzine's behalf.

Many people claim to disapprove of negative ads, but they work, political scientists say. "They move the poll numbers, and that's why they keep doing them," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

"They influence the people who are least partisan," Dworkin said. "Most strong partisans will not be convinced by seeing a negative ad."

Another theory is that negative ads energize a candidate's base, stirring up bad feelings for an opponent, aiding get-out-the-vote efforts.

Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said voters who are not loyal to a particular party could be turned off to the political process by negative ads.

"They tend to look at the ads and say, one guy is as bad as the next guy, so I might as well stay home," Harrison said.

In this race, Harrison believes negative ads will tend to be more effective against Christie because voters know less about him. Corzine has been in the public light for years - long enough for most voters to have formed an opinion about him that is less likely to be swayed by a commercial.

"Almost everything negative that can be said about him has already been said, and so I think, in some ways, not that voters are immune, but they've heard it all before," Harrison said.

And because Corzine holds the financial advantage, he can also make sure voters see more of his ads. New Jersey includes the first and fourth most expensive media markets in the country, New York and Philadelphia.

Christie, who is accepting public financing, is limited to spending $10.9 million in the general election; Corzine, a multimillionaire who is not accepting public money and therefore is not subject to the same cap, is expected to spend several times that amount.

One Corzine ad points out that Christie abruptly walked out of a congressional subcommittee hearing when the questions turned to the no-bid contracts. The ad closes with a narrator's voice saying, "Chris Christie: Unbelievable" and then a clip of Christie saying, "I have to go."

Another Christie ad is set to the tune of the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" (also used as the theme song for the reality TV show The Apprentice). Among the questions flashed, along with images of a man golfing and a small airplane: "What if you bought yourself political power?"

The danger of negative ads is the potential for backlash if a candidate goes too far. Just where that line might be can be tough to tell.

In the state's last governor's race, many analysts believed a Doug Forrester ad quoting Corzine's ex-wife as saying she was disappointed by him - and the state would be too - crossed the line.

Dworkin said there are no hard and fast rules.

"Where that line is is very subjective - there's no particular rulebook," he said.

The competitiveness of the Corzine-Christie race is probably helping to push the early negative ads. Republicans are hoping to capture their first statewide election since 1997, and for now, at least, their candidate is in the lead, according to polls.

Carroll said that given New Jersey's liberal politics, Corzine still has a good chance of catching Christie despite trailing him in most polls all year.

And that means voters should prepare for even more ugliness.

"When you have a race that is this close, it means campaigns tend to push the envelope and pull out all the guns," Harrison said.

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