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  Corzine declares candidacy for Governor
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« on: December 02, 2004, 09:36:29 pm »

Corzine declares candidacy for Governor

By STEVE KORNACKI
PoliticsNJ.com

NEWARK, December 2 - Word that Corzine would make this announcement began to spread just before Thanksgiving and its early timing led many observers to believe he was trying to thwart any momentum Codey had gained from his gubernatorial honeymoon.  There was speculation that Corzine would trot out Democratic elected officials from key pockets of the state today, thereby establishing him as the overwhelming favorite of his party’s establishment.

Some Codey loyalists advanced the theory that his solitary press conference meant Corzine was having trouble nailing down commitments; Corzine’s backers argued that filling the stage with party leaders would have undermined his message of independence.

“If he’s going to stand up with influential pols, you want to make sure you have a large enough cast,” said one Democratic lawmaker.  “So it’s possible the cast just may not have been large enough, at least today…But it’s also probably true that he didn’t want to appear to have the support of party bosses and power-brokers.”

Corzine himself said he was only beginning to seek party support and there are no indications his camp pushed for elected officials to attend.

But the senator’s backers can make a powerful pitch to party chiefs, one that is rooted both in Corzine’s appeal as a candidate and in the promise of what his governorship could mean for their party.

To the general public, he’s a thoughtful, mild-mannered and, above all, popular senator.  Polls suggest he’s the most well-liked elected official in New Jersey .  Who better, Corzine’s supporters are asking Democrats, to place at the top of next fall’s ticket?

To the party establishment, he’s a one-man solution to the biggest problem in politics -- raising money.  Corzine would finance his own campaign and has shown no hesitation to share his wealth with other Democratic candidates and county party organizations.  Under the new campaign finance limits signed by Jim McGreevey, there’s a new premium on that largesse.

By tradition, the governor controls his or her state party committee and Corzine’s backers argue he’d do a better job of party-building than Codey, mainly because Corzine lacks the high-profile intra-party enemies that Codey has.  For instance, they argue, Corzine might be more willing to invest state committee money in county elections in South Jersey , an area where Codey’s nemesis, George E. Norcross III, calls the shots. 

Despite that, there are those who believe some party chiefs may pass on Corzine, since they wouldn’t feel any sense of ownership if he becomes governor.

For now, Corzine seems content to make his case to the general public, betting that the party’s apparatus will ultimately be with him but also believing he can win a primary without it.

Codey is seeking to prolong his media honeymoon and put off making an announcement until the end of January.  Democrats report that he’s been making calls to key county leaders asking them to keep their powder dry and hold off from jumping on the Corzine bandwagon.  He’s also sent signals to party bosses that they will not find a receptive audience in the governor’s office for the next 13 months if they come out for Corzine now.

For the most part, Democrats are playing along, at least publicly.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone endorsed Corzine moments after his press conference ended, but he was the only one of the state’s seven Democratic congressmen to do so.  And most county leaders are said to be keeping their powder dry, at least for now.

But if Codey wants to run, most believe he needs to take a swing at Corzine, who pointedly refused to take a reporter’s bait today and criticize Codey.

If Codey were to attack Corzine -- perhaps by calling for him to give up his Senate seat to run for governor— it would likely create a war, but it would send a signal to Democrats that Codey is serious about running.  It would also give him a chance to chip away at Corzine’s popularity.  The drawback for Codey, of course, is that his honeymoon with the press would likely end.

Corzine’s early announcement might force Codey’s hand, but it also sets the senator up as a target for the media and Republicans.  He got a taste of that at his press conference.

Several reporters questioned Corzine about his relationship with Charles Kushner, the real estate magnate and top McGreevey donor who was fined $508,900 by the FEC this summer and then pled guilty to defrauding the federal government and admitted to a witness retaliation charge in a different federal case.  Corzine and Kushner were partners in an ill-fated bid to purchase the New Jersey Nets in 2003.

Corzine’s money also figures to come under scrutiny.  Reporters grilled him about the millions of dollars he’s channeled to county Democratic organizations and their bosses and the state’s new Republican chairman, who waited in the hotel’s lobby while Corzine spoke, held an impromptu press conference afterwards in which he branded Corzine a “superboss” and demanded that he resign his Senate seat.

If the perception takes hold that Corzine is trying to buy the election, Codey, with his meager war chest, could benefit by the contrast.

But Corzine’s side maintains that Codey’s camp is drastically overselling the acting governor’s political position.  They insist there won’t be a primary and that Codey won’t have to cut a deal with Corzine to avoid one.  And if Codey does enter the race, they argue that Corzine’s money and popularity would easily trump whatever public goodwill Codey accrues over the next few months.

In 2000, Corzine officially spent $63 million to win his Senate seat, and some individuals associated with that campaign say the actual total was higher.  He said today he’d spend “significantly less” on this race since people are more familiar with him now.
 
Corzine’s cash edge could ultimately be the death knell of any hopes Codey has.  The campaign finance reforms championed by McGreevey and upheld by Codey drastically curtail candidates’ fund-raising abilities.  And Codey made it even tougher for potential donors to help him by voluntarily including his state Senate PAC in a ban on the solicitation of money from state contractors.

One party fund-raiser advanced the idea that Codey backers could launch a 527 group -- an independent organizations that is exempt from the regulations that are applied to political campaigns.  Nationally, 527 groups raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars this year on behalf of George W. Bush and John Kerry.  Their activities were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Bush and Kerry campaigns.

Steve Kornacki can be reached at kornackinj@aol.com
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