TRENTON — Barbara Buono’s debate against Gov. Chris Christie tonight is one of the few opportunities for the Democrat to reach a large bloc of voters before the Nov. 5 election.
The one-hour showdown between New Jersey’s two main gubernatorial candidates will be broadcast live on CBS affiliates in New York and Philadelphia starting at 7 p.m.
Buono could use the boost. She has less name recognition than the nationally known governor and significantly less money to spend on TV ads. Polls show her trailing by about 20 points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000 in voter registrations.
The 51-year-old governor, who is considered a strong potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has dominated the race to such a degree that it’s widely assumed he will win. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, says only Christie’s margin of victory is in doubt.
Nonetheless, a strong debate showing from Buono could cut into his lead, especially if she is able to make inroads regarding property taxes, voters’ top concern.
New Jersey property taxes averaged $8,100 last year, highest in the country.
Net property taxes under Christie have risen 13 percent, almost as much as the 15 percent net gain seen under his predecessor, Jon S. Corzine. Christie pledged during the 2009 gubernatorial campaign in which he unseated Corzine that he would control costs and restore some relief programs the Democrat scaled back. Christie is now emphasizing how his policies are controlling government costs.
Rebates to low wage-earners and senior citizens have gradually risen under Christie, though not to pre-2007 levels, while the benefit remains suspended for nonseniors earning more than $75,000.
Christie’s campaign ads are replete with reminders that property taxes rose even faster during the time Buono was a legislative leader in the majority party. He is expected to return to that refrain in the debate.
Though Buono’s support for gay marriage and raising the minimum wage are in line with a majority of New Jersey voters, the consensus among people watching the race closely is that Christie has the easier assignment when they meet face-to-face.
Christie has perfected his stagecraft through three years of campaigning around the country for fellow Republicans.
Buono, on the other hand, will find herself on the biggest stage of her 20-year legislative career. Until now, her experience has been mostly confined to the New Jersey Statehouse, where she was Senate majority leader and chairwoman of its budget committee.