GOP Race To Challenge N.J. Gov Corzine Heats Up

Democrats are pouring millions of dollars into New Jersey's gubernatorial race. They are trying to help the incumbent, John Corzine, keep his seat in November. But all the action in Tuesday's primaries is on the GOP side: Two Republicans are fighting for the nomination to take on Corzine, and ideological differences are what will determine the winner.

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As the Republican party tries to recover ground after some tough election cycles one bright spot may be New Jersey. The state's Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, has low approval ratings. Polls show a Republican could beat him in this fall's election. But the GOP in New Jersey split over what sort of candidate should face off against Corzine. NPR's Robert Smith reports on the eve of the state's primary election.

ROBERT SMITH: You don't want to get between a Jerseyite and his egg sandwich. But Chris Christie is a tough guy to ignore. Good morning Chris Christie (unintelligible) your breakfast.

Mr. CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, New Jersey): Good morning, Chris Christie.

SMITH: Don't want to interrupt your breakfast.

Mr. CHRISTIE: A pleasure.

SMITH: The burly former U.S. attorney for New Jersey is making the round for the Candlewick diner in East Brunswick. And the topic at each table is the same, taxes. John Sedo(ph), a financial analyst having his coffee, repeats what anyone here can tell you. New Jersey is one of the most heavily taxed states in the nation. And Sedo says it hasn't any better under Governor Corzine.

Mr. JOHN SEDO: I've seen nothing except my tolls going up, my tax is going up, I need change.

SMITH: So the change is on the other foot now. Republican like Christie believe that even a state that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama is ready to try a Republican again.

Mr. CHRISTIE: What national Republicans can learn is that our party needs to come together on those four principles that we really believe in: smaller government, cutting income tax across the board for everyone. Those are the things that unite as Republicans, and unite as New Jersians.

SMITH: That's a little bit of wishful thinking. Since the Republican party in New Jersey is anything but united. Chris Christie was supposed to be the easy choice for the Republican nomination here. As U.S. attorney he fought corruption in the state and convicted over 100 public officials. He vaguely promises tax cuts for everyone, Christie has the endorsement of most of the party leaders. But that inside track is exactly what angered a former small town mayor named Steve Lonegan, who's flooding talk radio with ads like this.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: Who stands up for taxpayers and your conservative values, not Christie and the party hacks, they're hiding. Every time tax payers need help.

SMITH: Lonegan has been a conservative gadfly in the state for years. He even sued New Jersey government over how much they were borrowing. He has run for governor before but this time Lonegan is pushing a drastic overhaul of the state's finances. He wants to cut the state budget by 20 percent and institute a flat tax rate. Talking to commuters in Hoboken this morning, Lonegan explained that a flat tax would mean lower taxes for the rich and, yes, increased taxes for lower and middle class.

Mr. STEVE LONEGAN (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, New Jersey): You are talking about paying a little bit more - a little bit more for the opportunity to have a better chance of getting a higher paying job to see real job growth come to the state. The option is to continue the current economic decline in which case everybody suffers.

SMITH: The primary has created it's own share of suffering. Both candidates have slammed each other with brutal ads and a group of Democrats smelling blood launched their own set of ads, questioning Christie's integrity - polls show him to be the stronger candidate in November. Bridget Calahan Harrison a political science professor at Montclair State says the Republicans in Jersey seem to do this with every statewide race, squander all their money and goodwill in the primary.

Professor BRIDGET CALAHAN HARRISON (Political Science, Montclair State): Whoever win this nomination is going to have to face off in November in a general election against an enormously well funded candidate.

SMITH: Governor Jon Corzine, the former head of Goldman Sach's is a multi millionaire. With that money and a slightly improving economy, Harrison says you can't count the Democrat out yet.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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