Murphy and Ciattarelli to face off in first debate in Newark

After trading barbs in news conferences and television ads, Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli will debate each other.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (left) and Jack Ciattarelli

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (left) and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli (right). (Office of Gov. Phil Murphy/Jack for NJ)

The first of three debates in New Jersey’s gubernatorial contest for 2021 is still on for Tuesday evening.

Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli have traded barbs in television ads and during news conferences. Now, they will verbally duke it out in person at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

The debate season starts as the latest Monmouth University Poll shows “a small shift” in the contest. Still, Murphy is still leading Ciattarelli by double digits, 51%-38%. In August, Murphy polled at 52% while Ciattarelli polled at 36%.

The poll showed Ciattarelli with a slight lead in South Jersey in August. Now, he is “basically even” with Murphy in the region.

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The Republican also remains largely unknown, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Poll. He said this is the time for Ciattarelli to start building momentum in order to get voters when they begin to pay more attention to the race in October.

“You start needing to make that movement now,” he said. “Our polling numbers suggest that Jack Ciattarelli just has not been able to make a dent in Murphy’s standing in a way that could potentially set him up for an upset.”

Murray adds that a steady stream of advertising from both campaigns have not made a difference in the race, including one from Ciattarelli that attacked Murphy’s handling of rape allegations from a former aide against a top Murphy official when the two worked on Murphy’s first campaign.

Katie Brennan, who was at the center of Garden State politics a couple of years ago, accused Al Alvarez of attacking her. He maintains his innocence. Her testimony at a bipartisan hearing over her allegations was prominently featured in Ciattarelli’s attack ad. Brennan called the ad “deeply inappropriate” considering that her testimony was used without her permission.

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Murray said the Brennan ad “just never even penetrated” based on the numbers. Of those polled, 40% trust that Murphy will make sure women are respected, compared to 17% for Ciattarelli.

Tuesday’s debate will mainly be seen by pundits, according to Murray.

“For the Murphy campaign, it’s ‘don’t make any mistakes’ because that’s really what will be reported if you do that,” he said. “For [Ciattarelli], however, he really needs something that draws a stark contrast, that gives him an advantage on an issue where he has a natural advantage.”

The Democratic incumbent continues to earn strong marks on his handling of the pandemic, which happens to be the top issue for voters. The Republican’s best strategy is to get Murphy to make a mistake during the debate, according to Murray.

“Try to look for an area where the governor has made a mistake or is making a mistake,” he said, adding that normal issues like taxes have taken a back seat to COVID.

Meanwhile, Murphy has room to grow, according to the pollster, and it’s around the pandemic.

“On the big issues, such as masking and vaccine mandates, the majority of New Jerseyans are behind Murphy’s stance on that issue versus Ciattarelli’s stance,” Murray said.

A vast majority of those polled previously approved of Murphy’s executive order that requires everyone who visits a school building to wear a mask. Ciattarelli has denounced the mandate. He said it should be up to a parent to decide whether their child should wear a mask, while also claiming — without proof — that masks are detrimental to a child’s development.

WHYY is a partner in the debate. Hear the debate live on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. on WHYY-FM 90.9.

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