President Obama swept into New Jersey today, headlining two campaign rallies for Gov. Jon Corzine in an eleventh-hour attempt to help the embattled Democrat pull out a once-unthinkable victory in the state's closely watched governor's race.
Obama spoke in the Democratic bastions of Camden and Newark, trying to convince voters who turned out for him in droves in 2008 to do the same for Corzine on Election Day this Tuesday.
"He's one of the best partners I have in the White House. We work together," Obama told a rally of 3,500 people in Camden. "We know our work is far from over."
Corzine reinforced the theme, calling Obama "our friend, our partner," and added, "I'm here to ask you a simple question: Are you ready to keep it going? ... Today I am standing with President Obama. That tells you everything you need to know."
Opinion polls point to a photo finish between Corzine and Republican Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey. Independent Chris Daggett has been polling in the low double-digits and could affect the outcome.
The White House is anxious for a win in New Jersey, to counter an expected Republican triumph in Virginia, the only other governorship up for grabs in the off-year elections.
A Republican sweep in both states would be cast, fairly or not, as a sign of weakness for Obama and the Democrats -- potentially complicating the president's efforts to enact his agenda and energizing the GOP heading into the crucial 2010 midterm elections.
Corzine taped a commercial not too long ago that began, "I'm New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, and I should be dead." It was a public service announcement for seat belts after a car crash in April 2007 left him with 15 broken bones and breathing on a ventilator in intensive care.
But Corzine could have been talking about his political prospects. He trailed Christie by 15 points in one poll over the summer. Many Democrats had written off his campaign as a lost cause.
He has been able to claw back in the race, partly by hitching himself to Obama, who swept New Jersey by a margin of 57 percent to 42 percent in the 2008 election and remains popular there.
Obama's visit Sunday was his third trip to New Jersey for Corzine since July, and the second in 11 days. All of his appearances have been to solidly Democratic communities, an effort to rev up turnout for the incumbent.
Team Corzine also has plastered the state with billboards and stuffed mailboxes with literature, all showing Corzine and Obama together, with the slogan "Yes We Can 2.0." During an Obama visit in July, signs were distributed touting "Obama & Corzine," as if they were running mates.
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Obama also has starred in Internet and television ads for Corzine. The effort is anything but subtle. One spot flashes the slogan, "2008: A movement begins ... In 2009 we keep it going!"
"Corzine does benefit by reminding people he is a Democrat and so is Obama," said David Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll.
Other prominent Democrats also have stumped for Corzine, including Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy.
For a Democrat, appeals to party loyalty make sense in New Jersey. The party enjoys a 700,000 voter registration edge over Republicans in the state, which has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Sen. Clifford Case won re-election in 1972.
However, the state has a track record of electing moderate Republican governors -- Tom Kean won twice, in 1981 and 1985, and Christie Todd Whitman won twice, in 1993 and 1997.
While Corzine is trying to make the election a referendum on Obama, Christie is trying to make it a referendum on the governor.
"This election is about New Jersey. And I think it's about me and Jon Corzine. I don't think it's about Barack Obama or Bill Clinton," Christie said recently.
New Jersey voters are notoriously grumpy, thanks to one of the highest property tax burdens in the nation, but the state's political landscape is especially toxic this year.
The recession has battered New Jersey, wrecking the state's already precarious finances.
Corzine infuriated voters by raising the sales tax, hiking highway tolls and slashing aid to municipalities. And he enraged the Democratic-leaning public employee unions by forcing workers to contribute toward certain benefits for the first time.
According to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released last week, 68 percent of likely voters say the state is on the wrong track, while only 21 percent say it's headed in the right direction. Just 37 percent approve of the job Corzine is doing; 52 percent disapprove, the poll found.
Corzine Ad Attacks Christie's Weight
"Nobody wants to be the governor when revenues evaporate," said Peter Woolley, director of the Polling Institute at Fairleigh Dickinson, which is in Hackensack, N.J. "I don't know whether Corzine has been knocked around by Christie, but he certainly has been knocked around just by being governor of New Jersey."
Still, Christie has tried, denigrating Corzine's fiscal stewardship while pledging to cut taxes and spending if elected.
"Liberal Jon Corzine. He's voted for higher taxes 133 times ... Incredible," one of Christie's ads intones.
Corzine has tried to make Christie an unpalatable choice to voters with a furious blitz of attack ads declaring the Republican too conservative and questioning his integrity.
Critics say one attack hit below the belt -- by attacking Christie's belt with a spot that displays an unflattering picture of the portly Christie, saying he "throws his weight around."
"At least man up and say I'm fat," Christie responded, in an interview on the Don Imus radio show.
Corrine has been able to out-duel Christie on the airwaves, by dipping into the fortune he earned on Wall Street, where he headed investment bank Goldman Sachs. He has shelled out $23.6 million in the election so far, most of it his own money, nearly three times the $8.8 million spent by Christie.
Corzine's campaign hasn't been able to raise his poll numbers as much as bring Christie's down.
"A lot of people don't like Corzine, but they don't see the alternative," Redlawsk said.
The attacks on Christie have driven some voters to Daggett, a former state environmental official who won a surprise endorsement from New Jersey's most influential newspaper, the Star-Ledger of Newark.
According to a poll by Quinnipiac University last week, Daggett is snatching approximately three votes from Christie for every two he's taking from Corzine -- enough, analysts say, to potentially tip the balance toward Corzine in a close race.