Jon Corzine's remarkable comeback in the N.J. governor race

Forget Bill Clinton, the next comeback kid looks like New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine.

The former Goldman Sachs (GS) co-chairman was given up for roadkill on the New Jersey Turnpike a few months ago after the Garden State became embroiled in yet another embarrassing political scandal. In this one, politicians and rabbis -- you read that right -- were accused in a wide-ranging money-laundering scheme. The timing couldn't have been better for Republican candidate Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney viewed as a scrupulous crime-fighter who busted crooked politicians.

At the time, Corzine trailed Christie by double-digit percentage points. But now several polls show Corzine leading Christie as New Jersey voters head to voting booths on Tuesday. The race, however, is far from a foregone conclusion even though most of the state's big newspapers are backing the incumbent.

Despite Corzine's revival, saying he's unpopular may be an understatement. Christie has a willing helper in NJ 101.5, the conservative-leaning talk-radio station in the state that constantly harps on issues near and dear to New Jerseyeans, such as having the highest property taxes in the country and a culture of official corruption that would make pols in Illinois jealous.

Paying Attention in the White House

The New Jersey contest is one of a handful that pundits will be watching during next week's election, along with the governor's race in Virginia and the congressional battle in New York's 23rd district. That race pits Republican Dierdre Scozzafava, Democrat Bill Owens and Doug Hoffman of the Conservative Party of New York. Prominent conservatives such as Sarah Palin are backing Hoffman, saying that Scozzafava is too much like a Democrat. The GOP split has gotten a lot of media attention.

Experts caution against reading too much into results of an off-year election in terms of what it means for President Obama. Nonetheless, the White House is paying close attention, especially to what's going on in the Garden State.

"The Obama White House has to be concerned that Democrats have lost so much ground in just a year," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in an e-mail. "Democrats don't have the enthusiasm they did in 2008, while Republicans are angry and determined to show up at the polls, and deliver a message to the president." Indeed, Obama was concerned enough that he stumped for Corzine most recently on Oct. 21, followed by Vice President Joe Biden two days later.

Corzine tied with Christie, each with about 40 percent, in an Oct. 14 Quinnipiac poll, which had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points, according to Bloomberg News. On July 14, two days before an earlier Obama visit, Corzine trailed Christie 41 percent to 53 percent. Quinnipiac's Oct. 28 poll shows the governor 5 points ahead.

Big Spender

His comeback is still surprising, even though the Garden State has voted solidly Democratic for so long that the Obama campaign sent would-be volunteers to neighboring Pennsylvania last November. Corzine also isn't a natural campaigner, often seeming stiff and awkward in person.

But for all his weaknesses as a candidate, Corzine more than makes up for it by being wealthy. He's not New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg rich (that is, a billionaire), but he's hardly poor. A recent divorce settlement and spending more than $100 million of his own money on his 2000 senatorial campaign and on his first run for governor in 2005 have put a crimp on Corzine's finances and forced him to raise money like any normal politician, according to The New York Times. He's seeking to raise $15 million, chump change for an investment banker.

This time around, Corzine has spent at least $16.8 million, more than triple Christie's $5.4 million, Bloomberg News reported, citing campaign records. Independent Chris Daggett, 59, has spent about $1 million.

None of the Above

Based on the poll numbers, the former investment banker has spent his money well. "It's been a nasty campaign in every possible way," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, referring to the ubiquitous negative commercials both Corzine and Christie have been running. One-quarter of likely voters rate both Christie and Corzine unfavorably, according to the Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

Many voters appear to be disgusted with the whole campaign. And that could make Daggett a spoiler, in either direction. However, the GOP may have more to fear, given that some Christie TV ads link Daggett's policies to Corzine. Still, despite nearly 70 percent support for an alternative to Democrats and Republicans, just one-in-five likely voters supports Daggett, according to New Jersey Newsroom, a website founded by former Newark Star-Ledger reporters.

That could give Corzine the edge he needs to cement his claim to being the new Comeback Kid.

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