Chris Christie earned his reputation as an effective and energetic corruption-buster. We believe he would make an effective governor as well - one who would bring some fiscal sanity to state government, one who would set a no-nonsense tone in Trenton, and who would protect and nurture Atlantic City's economic health in these precarious times.

Both Christie and Gov. Jon S. Corzine vow not to allow video-lottery terminals in racetracks. But Christie appears the most passionate and unwavering on protecting Atlantic City from future gambling expansion in the state. He also wants to rework the

Casino Reinvestment Development Act to channel more money into Atlantic City, a move that's often talked about by local politicians but that could backfire in a Legislature dominated by northern New Jersey. Still, having the governor in favor of such a welcome change could make the idea viable.

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Christie often has been faulted for a lack of specifics regarding how he would deal with the state's huge budget problems. But what Christie does have is a fiscal philosophy and a great deal more realism than he has been given credit for.

Christie recognizes New Jersey taxpayers and businesses bear an extremely heavy tax burden and flatly refuses to raise any taxes. But he is also candid about the fact that the state will not be able to afford all the programs and services it now provides, at least in the short-term - and that some cutbacks will not be popular. Examples: He would refuse to raise the gas tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, instead considering a pay-as-you-go system that would mean fewer road projects are done in the next few years. He would not expand preschool and, in fact, would restrict preschool funding to the so-called Abbott districts: "I just don't think we can afford it."

He has a good point.

Christie seems best able to reform the state's pension and benefits system, particularly for new employees. That's crucial to the state's economic health. He is not beholden to the state public-employee unions and has not attempted to curry favor with them. Predictably, they have been out full-force in support of Corzine.

Christie is not without flaws. We are troubled by his cavalier attitude regarding reimbursement limits on government travel expenses, as well as the appearance of political posturing while he served as U.S. Attorney. Still, these ethical questions - hammered home by the moneyed Corzine campaign - do not outweigh qualities that make him the right person to fix what's wrong in Trenton.

We endorsed Corzine during the last race, but his term has been a disappointment. He has been less than effective in dealing with the Legislature. He has strived, too weakly at times, for fiscal prudence - putting more money into pension accounts during his first two years than other governors, trying to lower state debt, trying to match spending with recurring revenues. But those attempts ultimately buckled under the weight of the state's fiscal problems, compounded by the recession. And his coziness with public-employee unions gives us little confidence that he will aggressively seek needed reform of pensions and benefits.

Corzine is deeply committed to helping the vulnerable and disadvantaged. But his tenure in office has simply been too disappointing for us to endorse him again.

Independent candidate Chris Daggett's campaign for governor has sparkled with candor, sense and substance. He's offered thoughtful solutions, has impressive experience running government agencies and doesn't appear beholden to special interests.

But the odds against Daggett are almost impossibly long - made even longer by his nearly invisible spot on the ballot. He has a specific and sensible plan for property-tax relief that involves extending the sales tax to certain services. But the question is how effective this engaging policy specialist would be in getting this and other tough proposals through an obstinate and bare-knuckled Legislature. Moreover, Daggett, alone among the three, would keep the door open to expanded gambling in the state.

Still, Daggett has shined in this campaign - and Christie would be smart, if elected, to find a place in his Cabinet for someone with so much to contribute.

All in all, though, we believe Christie is best for the state - and, importantly, best for Atlantic City as well.

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