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Comeback candidates

"Comeback candidates" Continued...

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

Corzine, a multimillionaire former Wall Street executive who spent $40 million of his own money to win the statehouse four years ago, has hitched himself to the Obama train. While Obama garnered 57 percent of the vote here last year, Corzine's job approval rating has dipped into the low 30s, largely due to state tax increases that totaled $1 billion last year alone.

Voter discontent is one reason that Christie, like McDonnell a former state attorney general, held a surprising lead in 40 straight polls this year. This despite the fact that Christie hasn't hidden his pro-life, conservative roots-a rarity in Northeastern states where successful Republicans are usually moderates in disguise.

Christie has not targeted Obama specifically but rather the big government push that created a punishing tax and regulatory climate for the Garden State. With the highest tax burden in America, the state suffers from a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate-its highest in 33 years-and faces an $8 billion budget deficit next year.

"The kind of economic policies people fear are coming out of the Obama administration have already played out here in New Jersey over the last eight years," said Christie's campaign chairman, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos.

But to win states like New Jersey, Republicans must better reach newly energized voting blocs like the African-American community; non-white voters increased in 2008 by 19 percent nationwide compared to 2004. This is proving to be a steep climb for Christie in New Jersey. Recently I joined Christie as he took his tax-cut message to the statewide conference of black ministers at the St. Matthew Church in Orange. Under a banner that read, "Go therefore and make disciples," Christie contrasted his modest, working-class roots with Corzine's wealth and preached about why the ministers should support a Republican.

"I feel like we have common interests in many areas," he told black pastors. But here he wasn't making many disciples.

"You're lying now," shouted 73-year-old attendant Delores Lewis, having her own Joe Wilson moment after Christie began talking about the importance of charter schools. The stout, hard-charging 47-year-old, who has won accolades for prosecuting political corruption cases, was undeterred. "There are some things I've said that you don't agree with," Christie concluded. "I've seen the look on your faces. But I'm a different kind of candidate because I'm here."

"Amen," an audience member replied.

But Lewis, the community organizer who interrupted Christie's speech, was no convert: "I will be fighting the Republicans. Obama has a tough job, and we Democrats need to stand behind him."

A few hours later, at the same church, participants-more than double the number of Christie's appearance-stood up and applauded as Corzine entered the sanctuary. His speech began with the story of Obama's election. No one interrupted.

Many think that independent voters, who went for Obama in droves last year, may determine the outcome of upcoming elections. This will test the transferability of Obama's political superstructure. "Are they going to show up a year later when Obama is not on the ticket?" wonders Tom Schaller, political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Already there has been a swing: Last year Democrats enjoyed a 14-point advantage when pollsters asked registered independents which party they preferred. But a new Gallup poll shows that independents now favor Republicans over Democratic candidates by 45 percent to 36 percent. In New Jersey, where 46 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated, independents are leaning Republican by a 2-to-1 margin.

The swing is reflected in fundraising: In August, during the heat of the healthcare debate, Republican congressional campaign committees brought in $1.7 million more than corresponding committees for Democrats, which have seen donations this year drop by 20 percent compared to last year. Democrats began the year with loads of goodwill among independents but have expended an enormous amount of political capital in a short period of time. They've asked Americans to accept a $787 billion economic stimulus and governmental takeovers of the banks and the automobile industry. And soon Congress may pass a healthcare overhaul that would put federal hands all over one-sixth of the nation's economy.

The early success of both McDonnell and Christie suggests that their strategy of embracing their conservative bona fides has tapped into the grassroots energy that has been unleashed in the growing Tea Party movement, which favors the limited-government views of Republicans. GOP volunteers have knocked on more doors already around Virginia than in the entire 2008 presidential election.

Republican wins in a Democratic stronghold like New Jersey and in a purple state like Virginia would boost both GOP fundraising and recruiting efforts, giving more qualified conservative candidates the confidence to toss their hats into 2010 races. Then the stakes will be higher: 37 governors' races, 38 U.S. Senate seats, and the entire U.S. House are up for grabs.

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