As Barack Obama planned a third campaign trip to New Jersey on behalf of Gov. Jon Corzine, the embattled governor said next week’s election is ultimately about New Jersey, not the White House and not about the Middle East.
In a conference call Tuesday with reporters from Jewish newspapers, Corzine fielded a question from the NJJN about whether the gubernatorial election is in part a referendum on Obama and, among some Jewish voters, a chance to express their views on the president’s Mideast policy.
Corzine said he welcomes the president’s support and has worked closely with the Obama administration on the economic stimulus plan, but that the election is about the best candidate for the state.
“At the end of the day this vote will be taken by all communities more based on what they think an individual will do for their families, their communities, their lives here in the state of New Jersey,” he said.
As the campaign entered the final week, Corzine and his Republican opponent, Chris Christie, remained in a virtual tie in the polls, while Independent Christopher Daggett was continuing to prove a potential spoiler.
The race is being closely watched around the country as one of only two gubernatorial elections and the only one featuring an incumbent Democrat (Virginia’s is an open seat).
Republicans have been eager to cast the race as a referendum on Obama.
In a telephone interview, Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, suggested Corzine ill pay the price among those who feel Obama has not stood strong with Israel.
“In the Orthodox community and elsewhere, there is real buyer’s remorse about this administration” because of the president’s policies on Israel and the Arab world, Brooks asserted.
Although the RJC’s advertisements for Christie have focused on lowering taxes, cutting spending, and family values, the Mideast issue is a “subtext” in the election, said Brooks.
“We’re not using that, but to the extent Corzine is linking himself to Obama, I think it’s a subtext in the way people are looking as this race,” he said.
Other prominent Republican leaders in the Jewish community aren’t so sure.
Publisher Steven Klinghoffer of Short Hills, who has been campaigning for Christie, said he has not heard any campaign talk linking Corzine with Obama’s policies on the Middle East.
“I am not aware this argument has been made,” Klinghoffer told NJJN. “I am somewhat surprised it has not happened because it is a natural political argument to make.”
Jared Silverman, a West Orange attorney who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican against Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) in 2002, said the top issues remain taxation and the economy.
“I have no particular hard evidence one way or the other that Israel will be a driving Jewish issue,” he said. “I don’t see Jews different from any other groups right now who are concerned about the level of taxation and where jobs are coming from and where they’re going. My personal feeling is that the election is about the finances and prospects for the state.”
In its outreach in the state, the National Jewish Democratic Council includes Corzine’s pro-Israel credentials among a list of “important issues” to the Jewish community. According to a statement by NJDC executive director Ira Forman, those issues are “reproductive freedom, stem cell research, health care, gun control, and strengthening the economic partnership between Israel and New Jersey.”
Jill LaZare, a Summit attorney, is coordinating NJDC’s outreach in North Jersey.
“While I support President Obama and believe he is a friend of Israel, it is irrelevant to the gubernatorial race in New Jersey,” said LaZare. “New Jerseyans — especially the Jewish community — should be well aware of how good a friend Gov. Corzine is to Israel. I don’t understand how anyone in the Jewish community in New Jersey could ever pass any judgment on Gov. Corzine’s relationship to Israel with regard to anyone else.”
“I believe in paying attention to the candidates, not to other factors like how the president is doing,” said Jackie Lieberman, a freelance writer from Scotch Plains. “Obviously, the economy is a big factor. We need someone who can lead New Jersey out of this recession…. I’m voting for the one I think is most likely to do the job right.”
Carole Thau, who lives in Berkeley Heights, is active in Hadassah. “I plan to vote for the person I consider to be honest, who will try to cut taxes, get our local economy back on track, and invest in our schools, and someone who is committed to women’s rights,” she said.
A 19-year-old student from Elizabeth, voting in person for the first time — he voted by absentee ballot from Israel last November — asked not to be named in case it caused conflict with his “strongly minded political friends who don’t agree with me at all.”
“I try to base my decision on who to vote for on articles I read in the paper,” said the student. “I try to figure out who seems to have the most experience and used past positions well. I also like it if they are confident and seem to know what they are doing, as well as having good goals and plans for how to accomplish them.”
Susan Coen of Elizabeth, a consultant specializing in arts and history issues and cochair of the NJ State Public Affairs Network of the National Council of Jewish Women, said voters will focus on what New Jerseyans need — not on their attitude to Obama.
“The economy will be intractable for some time yet, no matter who wins,” she said. “To talk about tax cuts and rebates with no possibility of paying for them is irresponsible. A progressive agenda is very important to me — pro-choice, taking cities seriously, access to preschool, better health care, gun violence prevention. And — critical for the long term — the next governor will pick several Supreme Court judges.”
In his talk with Jewish reporters, Corzine suggested the “Obama effect” among Jews would be felt only “at the margin.”
“There may be some who believe that the president is not standing as strong with Israel as they would like to see, and they might want to send a message,” he said. “I think there will be some voters who may want to use that, use the ‘no’ vote as a way to send a signal, but I don’t think that is very large bloc, and I know there are mixed views within the Jewish community about the president’s activities and actions — vocal groups on both sides.”
He then went on to list his pro-Israel credentials as governor and, before that, as U.S. senator, including the state’s investment in Israel Bonds and divestiture from Iran.
“No one can doubt for a moment that both when I was U.S. senator — and within the bounds of what I have the capacity to do as a governor — I have been absolutely supportive of Israel’s right to peace with security, and I will continue to stand in every possible way with Israel as our best ally,” Corzine said.
Andrew Silow-Carroll contributed to this report.