By law, Chris Christie can’t seek a third consecutive term as governor of New Jersey.
But if you watched Tuesday night’s debate in Newark between the two candidates running to succeed him, you could be forgiven for thinking he was on the ballot.
Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee and favorite to win next month’s election, portrayed himself as a change agent and knocked Republican nominee Kim Guadagno, characterizing her as Christie’s enabler.
Guadagno, the state’s lieutenant governor, said that was nonsense and told voters that a Murphy administration would impose sweeping new taxes on residents already bedeviled by an affordability crisis.
“The inconvenient truth for Phil is: Chris Christie is not on the ballot in November,” Guadagno said near the end of the first gubernatorial debate of the general election. “I am.”
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs banker and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, responded: “Chris Christie’s record is your record, lieutenant governor. You’ve been beside him every step of the way.”
Tuesday marked the first time the candidates appeared on stage together, and the hour-long debate at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center was one of their best chances yet to make their pitch to voters. The candidates clashed on subjects as varied as property taxes, so-called sanctuary cities, the Las Vegas shooting, and entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused in news reports of sexual harassment and assault.
According to an Oct. 3 Monmouth University poll, nearly half of the likely voters — 44 percent — don’t have an opinion on either candidate.
But when asked which of the two candidates they would support if the election were to be held today, 51 percent said Murphy, 37 percent said Guadagno.
There were no bombshells or defining moments that seemed likely to fundamentally change the race.
Murphy, 60, of Middletown, Monmouth County, declared that the “Christie-Guadagno administration” had undermined trust in state government: from public employees who have been “vilified” and ratings agencies that have downgraded New Jersey’s bond rating.
Murphy held Guadagno responsible for an economy that he said had been “wrecked,” “bankrupted,” and “ravaged” over the last eight years. He promised to meet the state’s pension obligations and ramp up spending on public schools.
Guadagno, 58, of Monmouth Beach, Monmouth County, portrayed her counterpart as a “Goldman Sachs millionaire” who was out of touch with middle-class residents. She alluded to Trenton’s dysfunction under New Jersey’s last “Goldman Sachs governor” — Jon S. Corzine, the firm’s former CEO.
Each candidate sought the moral high ground. If Congress and President Trump fail to reach an accord protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, Murphy said, he would declare New Jersey a “sanctuary state.”
“We will stand up to this president,” Murphy said.
Guadagno argued that would make New Jersey less safe.
For her part, Guadagno labeled Murphy a “coward” for waiting until Tuesday to denounce Weinstein. Guadagno’s campaign on Tuesday noted that the Democratic National Committee had accepted contributions from Weinstein when Murphy was the group’s finance chairman.
“I didn’t ask for and I didn’t get one dime from this guy,” Murphy said, referring to his own campaign.
He described Weinstein’s conduct as “heinous” and called for other Democrats to donate Weinstein’s contributions to “organizations that are focused on women’s rights.”
The final gubernatorial debate is scheduled for next Wednesday. The election is Nov. 7.