Chris Christie wins first debate by not ‘losing it’

 New Jersey gubernatorial candidates, Republican Governor Chris Christie, right, and Democrat State Senator Barbara Buono meet in governor's race debate at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/The Record of Bergen County,Marko Georgiev, Pool )

New Jersey gubernatorial candidates, Republican Governor Chris Christie, right, and Democrat State Senator Barbara Buono meet in governor's race debate at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/The Record of Bergen County,Marko Georgiev, Pool )

With polls consistently showing him leading Democrat Barbara Buono by anywhere from 19 to 35 points, the only thing Gov. Chris Christie had to do to “win” his debate against Buono last night was not to “lose it” – his temper, that is.

To the delight of his Republican strategists and the chagrin of Democratic leaders, it was a kinder, gentler Christie that showed up at William Paterson University last night and on CBS-TV screens across the state.

Sure, Christie got in a few memorable jabs on taxes, asking Buono if she regretted any of the 154 taxes and fees she had voted to raise during her legislative career and asserting that he had to clean up the budget mess that Buono and former Gov. Jon Corzine left behind. That contention prompted the feisty Buono’s best retort when she told Christie to stop blaming Corzine for everything: “Governor, you have to man up. You have been in office for four years.”

But last night wasn’t about what Buono did to effectively articulate her policy differences with Christie. It was about what Christie didn’t do. Overall, Christie was “calm, cool, collected and in control,” just what his longtime political guru, William Palatucci wanted. “I just liked his demeanor,” Palatucci said approvingly afterwards.

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“We didn’t see the real Chris Christie today,” Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), Buono’s campaign cochair, said with a touch of frustration. “We all know he speaks in a bullying language, but he tried to soften his image.”

There were few, if any, YouTube moments, and that added up to “a status quo debate” for a candidate content to sit on his giant lead, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute

“Barbara Buono hit all the points we knew she would hit,” Murray said. “But Chris Christie came across as solid, sober — he understood this was not a place for his Town Hall witticisms. He came across as a leader, and he looked like someone who deserved to have a 19-point lead. She did fine, but fine is not good enough. She was nervous and stumbled over a couple of her favorite attack lines. That is to be expected. It was her first big debate. Chris Christie did a lot better tonight than in his first debate four years ago.”

Michael DuHaime, Christie’s chief strategist both this year and four years ago, smiled appreciatively when asked about the kinder, gentler Christie who showed up last night. “This is the real Chris Christie. A lot of people see those YouTube videos and think that’s the way he always is. But on YouTube, you only see one minute, not the whole man.”

DuHaime left little doubt, however, why Christie strategists feel confident running out the clock with the election just four weeks away. “We have a lot of support from Democrats and trade union groups. We had no Democratic or trade union support four years ago,” he noted. “We have much higher numbers among African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and conservative and moderate Democrats, we have overwhelming Republican support and we can’t do any better than the two-thirds of independent voters we won four years ago.”

Buono — who is tired of reporters constantly asking “horse race” questions when most New Jersey voters agree with her, not Christie, on issues like gay marriage, gun control, abortion and minimum wage — was visibly exasperated when moderator Christine Johnson, a CBS-2 TV anchor, opened the debate by demanding twice why she was having so much trouble “gaining traction” in such a Democratic state, then asking why President Obama wasn’t coming in to campaign for her.

Johnson came at Christie with an equally blunt question about his bullying manner, but the governor belied his image by responding coolly, “What the people in New Jersey want is someone who’s real and will tell them the truth as he sees it,” not “prepackaged blow-dried politicians.” He added that “using direct and blunt language is something I have done my whole life and is the way my mother raised me.”Republicans who privately expressed concern that Christie would turn off women voters by berating Buono in one of his patented YouTube moments didn’t have to worry. Asked about his disagreement with Buono on gay marriage, he credited Buono as a person of “good will” who believes in her position. When the two candidates were asked to say what they admired about the other, Buono said snippily, “He’s good on late night TV, but bad for New Jersey,” while Christie responded by praising her as a good mother who had dedicated more than 20 years of her life to public service in the Legislature.

For Buono, the debate last night and a second televised debate at Montclair State University next Tuesday night represented her best opportunity to make her case against Christie before the November 5 election, John Currie, the state Democratic chairman noted, adding that “she had to make the most of it, and she did.”

The big problem for Buono is that she has raised only about $2 million so far, while Christie already has raised the maximum $11 million permitted under state election laws for those accepting matching funds. The second debate on October 15 will be overshadowed by the Cory Booker-Steve Lonegan special U.S. Senate election the next day, then Buono will be carpet-bombed by Christie ads she won’t have the money to match in the 20 days leading up to the election.

That is why Christie’s strategists were so pleased with last night’s debate — even if Buono arguably landed the most punches and supporters like Currie and Watson-Coleman could pronounce her the winner on points. Buono needs to win by a knockout, not by a split decision, and now only next Tuesday’s debate remains.

Furthermore, unlike Lonegan, whose unwavering support for the Tea Party threatens to torpedo his Senate candidacy if Obama and the GOP House majority remain deadlocked over the federal government shutdown and raising the federal debt ceiling, Christie actually stands to benefit politically the longer the stalemate continues.

The GOP governor has been running on a theme of bipartisanship since his famous hug with Obama after superstorm Sandy, and he used last night’s debate to remind voters of his cooperation with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to overhaul pension and benefit laws, revise interest arbitration, and impose a 2 percent cap on federal spending.

“Barbara Buono wouldn’t know about that because she hasn’t been a part of it,” Christie said pointedly, referring to Buono’s decision to buck Sweeney on the controversial pension and health benefits bill, which ultimately led to her being ousted as Senate majority leader.

Buono used last night’s debate to hammer away at Christie on property taxes and the economy — the two issues on which the GOP governor gets the lowest grades from New Jersey voters in public opinion polls. She asserted that New Jersey has 400,000 people out of work and ranks near the bottom in economic growth because of “Chris Christie’s failed supply-side, trickle-down, Romney-style economics.”

She contended that Christie’s provision of $2.1 billion in tax credits to corporations was the wrong strategy, and that the state should provide tax credits to small businesses. And she criticized Christie’s veto of Democratic-sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. “That is a starvation wage,” she said. “It’s just reflective of the governor protecting millionaires and the wealthy and turning his back on the middle class.”

Christie countered that “Senator Buono shows her misunderstanding of how to create jobs. That money doesn’t come off a money tree. It comes out of the pockets of those who own convenience stores and bodegas.” He criticized Buono and Democrats for failing to support his plan to phase in a minimum wage hike over three years.Christie blamed the state’s economic crisis on the recession he inherited after “the Corzine-Buono years,” and asserted that the state has added more than 140,000 jobs during his governorship, including a private sector job gain in 2012 that was the largest in New Jersey history.

The governor said his property tax cap, interest arbitration overhaul, and pension and health benefits legislation resulted in property taxes rising less than 2 percent in 2011 and 2012, and said he would push for Civil Service changes and the elimination of banked sick leave in a second term.

But Buono countered that Christie’s deep cuts in property tax rebates led to a 20 percent increase in net property taxes for the average New Jersey homeowner. Christie, she said, “vetoed legislation to have millionaire pay their fair share and fund property tax relief. I believe millionaires should pay their fair share and fund property tax relief. I will never balance the budget on the backs of the middle class.”

Christie deflected questions on whether he would run for president in 2016 — a campaign he would have to begin planning less than two years into his second term. He said he did not think voters expected him to make a decision three years before the next presidential election, and in any case, he said, “I can walk and also chew gum at the same time,” meaning that he could plan a presidential campaign while governing the state if necessary.

Buono said what bothers her is not that Christie is running for president, but how he’s running for president.

“You’re sacrificing the safety of our children by vetoing common-sense gun legislation just to cater to the NRA (National Rifle Association,” she charged. “You’re sacrificing the health of our women by vetoing funding for Planned Parenthood and that’s because the national conservative base of the Republican Party has declared this war on Planned Parenthood. And you know what, you are sacrificing and compromising the dignity of our gay brothers and sisters by vetoing marriage equality because you know that would kill you in a Republican primary.”

Christie defended his veto of gay marriage by saying the issue should be put before all of the state’s voters in a referendum, as it has been in 35 other states, rather than being decided by seven state Supreme Court justices or by a Legislature made up of “120 politicians with political agenda.”

“My daughter who is openly gay is not a political agenda,” Buono responded angrily.

Buono criticized Christie for thwarting the intent of the state’s medical marijuana legislation by making it difficult for centers to be licensed. She added that while she opposes the legalization of marijuana, she would support the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

Christie disagreed. “As a former U.S. attorney, I do not favor the legalization of marijuana or the decriminalization of marijuana,” he said. “I do not want my children or the children of New Jersey to believe using marijuana is okay. As long as I am governor, it will not happen.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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