Despite his abysmal poll ratings, it might be a mistake to rule out Governor Jon Corzine for reelection in New Jersey. This coming month may provide some clues to the Democrat's chances for a second term.
By July 1, Corzine has to persuade the legislature to approve spending cuts sufficient to close a $3 billion budget shortfall. Some of Corzine's moves, including furloughs and pay freezes, already have earned him enemies among a key constituency: public employee unions. Cuts in aid to local government will hurt him in the big cities that make up the strongest Democratic voting bloc.
The general public, meanwhile, feels that state taxes are too high and that spending isn't being cut enough. Those issues, combined with the downturn in the economy, have left Corzine with the lowest approval rating of any New Jersey governor in modern history. He also trails Republican Chris Christie in early polls.
Republican leaders, sensing the chance for a rare victory in a Democratic state, had hoped to unify the party behind Christie, who made his name by convicting more than 100 politicians on corruption charges as U.S. attorney. But Christie doesn't have the confidence of the GOP right, and he faces a surprisingly tough primary challenge from conservative Steve Lonegan, a former small-town mayor who has drawn financial help from out of state.
New Jersey Republicans have a history of squandering opportunity through factionalism and brutal primaries. Assuming Christie makes it through the June 2 primary, he'll have used up money he intended to spend on the general election and will need to attract disappointed Lonegan supporters without tacking too far right to win in November. He also will have to work to define himself to voters before Corzine's team does it for them. If Lonegan wins in June, he'll have to worry about a challenge in the fall from a moderate Republican who plans to run as an independent.
And while either Christie or Lonegan would be limited by their announced decisions to accept matching public money for the general election, Corzine will face no such obstacle. His experience on Wall Street may not be the best political credential in the present climate, but it left him with plenty of money to throw into campaigns. He has spent $100 million of his personal fortune on earlier contests for governor and for the U.S. Senate, and could spend millions more on this one election if he chose. As pollster Patrick Murray says, "Corzine has the deep pockets to introduce either of these two candidates the way he wants them to be introduced."
Still, given the state of the economy, Corzine has to be considered the underdog at this point. "Everyone is feeling such pain, such panic, that they are simply saying they don't like the status quo," says Ingrid Reed, a Rutgers University political scientist, "and that happens to be Corzine."