Republicans for Governor debate

May 12, 2009 9:58:13 PM PDT
Two Republicans vying for their party's nomination in the New Jersey governor's race clashed Tuesday over who was more conservative on taxes, state spending and social issues during a live, televised debate. The first of four debates before the June 2 GOP primary featured feisty exchanges between former U.S. attorney Christopher Christie and former suburban mayor Steve Lonegan.

A third GOP candidate, Assemblyman Rick Merkt of Morris County, wasn't invited to participate in the first two debates because he has not raised enough money to qualify for public financing.

Taxes and government spending dominated the early questioning from a panel of reporters. Lonegan said he would replace New Jersey's "progressive and destructive" income tax with a 2.9 percent flat tax. Christie said he would cut income taxes by reducing state spending.

Lonegan says his proposal would cut taxes for 70 percent of New Jerseyans. Christie attacked Lonegan's plan, citing an analysis that he said determined that 70 percent of residents would see tax increases, but he did not identify who performed the analysis or explain the basis for that conclusion.

Lonegan said he would eliminate property tax rebates; Christie would keep them. New Jersey's property taxes are among the country's highest, averaging more than $7,000 per home.

Christie saved his harshest criticism for Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the incumbent Democrat he hopes to face in November. Christie several times linked Corzine's spending practices to those of ex-Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned after a gay affair in 2004.

"If Jon Corzine and Jim McGreevey had just been able to control themselves to the rate of inflation of increases over the last seven years, we'd have $6 billion more to return to taxpayers," Christie said when asked about attracting new jobs to New Jersey. "We are like a Third World nation looking for a bridge loan to pay our bills."

Pressed on how he would create jobs, Christie said he would eliminate onerous business regulations and trim corporate taxes. He did not say how he would make up that revenue shortfall, however.

Lonegan also said he would make the state more attractive to business through less regulation and fewer taxes.

On social issues, the two candidates mostly found common ground.

Both said they would prefer to see voters, rather than the Legislature, decide whether the state should sanction gay marriage, for example, and both said they would campaign against such a measure.

Both also said they oppose a proposal moving through the Legislature that would ask voters to approve $600 million in borrowing for open space acquisition. Voters have consistently approved prior bond measures.

Additionally, both said they oppose universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, which Corzine supports.

With the Republican race tightening, the Democratic Governors Association began spending money this month on advertisements attacking Christie, the perceived front-runner. Christie had a 9-point lead over Lonegan in an independent poll taken last month.

The GOP winner faces an uphill fight against the far-wealthier incumbent governor. Both Republicans are accepting public financing and are bound by spending limits, while the largely self-funded Corzine is not.

The makeup of New Jersey's electorate also benefits Corzine. Of 5.1 million registered voters last year, there are about 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans; nearly half are unaffiliated.

The New Jersey Network-sponsored debate can be viewed on the Web. The next debate can be seen Sunday at 11 a.m. on WABC television and 1 p.m. on WPVI.

Two other debates - May 26 on 101.5 FM and May 27 on WOR 710 AM - will include Merkt.