By any standard, what David Rice said to Chris Christie took guts.

But Rice was glad afterward that he said it.

Ambling up to the Republican candidate for governor last week at an event in Monmouth Junction, the 23-year-old shop clerk from Edison, Middlesex County, who himself weighs in at about 200 pounds and stands about 5'8", said he did not like seeing Christie attacked by his nearest rival in the race because of his weight.

Christie, seemingly caught off-guard, patted Rice on the back while glancing around a room still crowded with reporters.

"I've got broad shoulders, so I can take it," Christie told Rice - employing a line he has used to deflect all sorts of attacks by his opponent, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine. The crisp response has allowed the candidate to turn his size into an asset.

Since the first campaign flyers appeared against Christie, weight has played a role in the campaign.

Not that Corzine does not have his own appearance issues.

"If we talk about Christie's weight, we have to talk about Corzine's beard," said Sharon Schulman, executive director of Richard Stockton College's Hughes Center for Public Policy.

Leaving aside that so many of New Jersey's state officials - to judge by their oil portraits - were bearded, Schulman says the antipathy for officials with facial hair is historical.

"Normally we like candidates not to have beards and mustaches, because they (look) less friendly when they smile," she said.

Even independent challenger Chris Daggett has gotten in on the act. His ads feature a heavyset man and a bearded fellow bickering, obvious stand-ins for the two major party candidates.

And while serious voters may lament all this attention being paid to appearance instead of issues, one group is reveling in this year's skin-deep campaigning. Candidates with prominent physical characteristics are meat and drink - or maybe fast-food - for political cartoonists.

"I depicted Christie like a fireplug sculpted of pudding," said Taylor Jones, a nationally known caricaturist, of his recent sketch on the governor's race. But he echoed the way he thinks Christie portrays Corzine - angled along an awkward sightline to "emphasize his Charles Darwin-shaped cranium and heavy brow."

As for the independent candidate, Jones said, "I'm not sure I'd recognize Chris Daggett if I passed him on the street."

But one look at the evolving campaign shows the discussion of physical appearance moving from sly jibes on partisan blogs to a recurring theme in campaign materials.

Corzine ads punned that the Republican "threw his weight around." Campaign flyers showed photos of Christie at his worst, looking large and unkempt. Billboards featured huge pictures of the Republican's face, making him appear even heavier.

Carla Katz, a former union leader and Corzine's ex-girlfriend, published an online editorial titled "Chris Christie's Diet for New Jersey" - an economic screed that managed somehow to mention "diet," "calories" or "Twinkie" in every paragraph.

The issue of Christie's weight was even the subject of a question at last week's debate between the three top lieutenant-governor candidates.

Corzine's running mate, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, responded to questions on Christie's weight by demurring, "I don't think there's too many of us in this race who could make it into the finals of 'The Bachelor' or 'The Bachelorette.'"

While all the attention may seem unfair, it is not going away. And it could play a role in deciding who resides in the governor's mansion next year.

Monmouth University recently asked unaffiliated voters what phrase they associated with the candidates - and created "word clouds" of the most mentioned. "Fat" stands out in Christie's cloud - more prominent than the word "politician" or "prosecutor."

"It's just extraordinary to see the issue of weight come up, so straightforwardly, in a campaign," said Don Davis, a satirist who operates the nationwide political humor site SatiricalPolitical.com. On Monday, Davis posted his snarky response to all the chat about Corzine's ads. Joking that Corzine was going "upscale" with his tactics, Davis Photoshopped an imaginary new ad - picturing Christie alongside the (considerably more rotund) William Howard Taft.

"It's sad to think I'd have to go that far back to find another prominent and large politician," Davis said. "Taft was before the television age."

For their part, the ads' targets - the voters - say the focus on a peripheral issue such as weight fills a space meant for discussion of, you know, policy.

"It's almost like you think there'll be civility left in the race, and then "Oh, why didn't I realize?" said Alayne Conner, talking politics Friday in downtown Millville. A mile away, a pair of billboards pointing east and west along Route 49 features what others in the cafe called the "Jabba the Hutt" sign.

The billboard depicts Christie only from the neck up, magnifying his face so much that his pores are visible and emphasizing the weight in his face.

While some voters are resigned to the attack ads, others find themselves responding sympathetically to the Republican.

"I think Christie's a fine-looking young man," said Barbara Ginsburg, a retiree from Galloway Township. "Listen, none of us should throw barbs like that."

While Christie has tried to ignore the weight issue, he and his camp have recently started responding more directly to the attacks.

Christie recently told The Associated Press he suffers no weight-related illnesses. He said he works out with a personal trainer and that his only chronic health condition is asthma.

In fact, Christie is trying to turn the weight issue to his favor.

At a campaign stop Thursday in Westville, Gloucester County, Christie said the Corzine campaign's jabs are attempts by the governor to avoid talking about the real issues in the campaign.

"I'm gonna let you in on a little secret," Christie told the crowd. "I know most of you didn't know this - but the governor's been whispering this to the press for months and months and months, and now he's trying to be a little cute about talking about it too through his TV ads. I want to make sure you're all seated and you're OK before I let you in on a secret: I'm overweight. And I've struggled with my weight for the better part of 30 years, up and down.

"And the governor somehow thinks that in a time when we have 9.8 percent unemployment, at a time when we have the highest tax burden in America, at a time when we have the highest property taxes in the United States, that that's what you wanna talk about."

For his part, the governor is playing coy on the topic of weight as a campaign issue

In an interview last week with The Press, when asked "Do you think Chris Christie is fat?" Corzine's response was "Am I bald?"

Leave it to satirist Davis to say that beards and bellies are not exactly regarded the same way.

"The difference between the two is, I suppose, there are places in the country where a beard looks radical. But in the Northeast, in New Jersey especially, it's acceptable," Davis said. "While weight, to be honest about it, makes people think about bad habits.

"On a more serious level then, I think there is, sadly, a real bias against that."

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