Wayne, N.J. – Chris Christie may be the incumbent Republican governor of New Jersey and a rising national figure, but he still had a lot to prove Tuesday night at William Paterson University during the first of two N.J. gubernatorial debates.
More than anything, he had to assert he’s fully committed to the Garden State in his reelection bid – and not gunning for the Oval Office in 2016, though he pointedly refused to rule anything out.
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The take-no-prisoners governor – a moderate still loathed by some Republicans for his embrace of President Obama before last year’s election, but solidly leading in N.J. polls – was polished, persuasive and mostly buttoned up as he made his case for staying on in Trenton after a first term in which he saw the state through both Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.
He and challenger Barbara Buono, a 20-year Democratic state legislator virtually unknown outside of New Jersey, faced tough questions about the state's high unemployment rate of 8.5 percent (higher than the national rate of 7.3 percent); its sky-high property taxes (averaging $8,100 per year, highest in the nation); and the high cost of a college education – among other financial and economic issues.
But even with his emphasis on how hard he’s worked for New Jersey and that pride in his work, it wasn’t long before a question about his prospects for higher office was posed by moderator Kristine Johnson of CBS News. “Governor, are you going to run for president?”
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“What an unusual question – I didn’t anticipate that,” said Christie, 51, who last year was the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention and mentioned as a possible running mate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney until Paul Ryan was chosen. “My mother told me a long time ago: Do the job that you have at the moment the best you possibly can and your future will take care of itself… After 2017, I’ll be looking for another job anyway. So I am going to continue to do my job the best way I possibly can.”
“However, Governor, you are asking the voters to commit four more years to you,” the moderator cut in. “Why should they vote for you?"
“Because of what’s happened for the past four years, and because they believe this type of leadership will continue in the next four,” Christie answered.
That was just the opening for challenger Buono – a mother of six, including an openly gay daughter – to chastise Christie for letting national politics color his decisions as governor, including “sacrificing the safety of our children by vetoing common sense gun legislation just to cater to the NRA” and for vetoing funding for Planned Parenthood, two issues important to voters in solidly blue-state New Jersey, which President Obama won by 17 points last November.
But Christie retorted: “I can walk and chew gun at the same time… I can do this job and deal with my future.”
Both candidates, in fact, got off some clever rejoinders during an evening largely focused on taxes, education and unemployment. Christie was on his game, comfortable in the spotlight, which Buono couldn't resist attacking him for: “Don’t let the glossy magazine covers and late-night wisecracks fool you," she said early on. "No amount of YouTube videos or late-night shows will erase the fact that we have 400,000 people out of work.”
Here are other standout moments in Tuesday night’s debate, attended by about 1,000 people:
WHY SO BLUNT?
Christie was asked about his use of less-than-delicate language (among other instances, last year he called a Democratic state lawmaker an “arrogant SOB"). “Are you sapping the dignity of the governor’s office?” the moderator asked.
He responded, “What the people of New Jersey want is someone who looks them in the eye and tells them the truth... That’s what leadership is about. Using direct and blunt language is something I’ve done my whole life... I am who I am.”
SAYING ‘I DO’
“I believe the institution of marriage for 2,000 years is between a man and a woman…. It should be decided by the 8.8 million people of New Jersey,” said Christie, maintaining that any change should be made by public referendum, not through the state legislature or the Supreme Court.
Buono fired back that same-sex marriage “is a human right – it really should not be on the ballot.” Christie replied, “I trust the people of N.J. to make this judgment. I don’t trust politicians with political agendas.”
PUBLIC WORKER BENEFITS
A proponent of civil service reform, Christie said the state must “end the abuse of sick pay throughout the state,” a reference to the state’s $1 billion in unused sick pay. Fixing this issue could “help change the property tax situation significantly.” Buono responded, “Millionaires should pay their fair share. I will never balance my budget off the backs of the middle class and working poor.” Christie retorted, “I know Sen. Buono would never balance her budget that way. I had to balance her budget.”
PLUG FOR BIPARTISANSHIP
“We need consensus-building in Trenton and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last three and a half years,” said Christie. “Sen. Buono wouldn’t know about that because she hasn’t been part of that.” He also said, “That’s why we’ve been able to get things done, compared to what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”
DIGGING OUT OF THE DEFICIT HOLE
“We were at the bottom of the barrel, with a $13 million deficit,” said Christie about the state's fiscal condition when he first took office. “We have dug out of quite the hole. We’ve worked hard and I’m proud of what we’ve done, cut business taxes… The N.J. comeback has begun.” Buono, though, slammed Christie more than once for his “Romney-style, trickle down economics” and giving what she said were unnecessary and overly generous tax credits to business.
Christie asked Buono about how she’s voted 154 times to raise taxes on New Jerseyans. “Is there one of them that you regret?” She never answered that directly.