New Jersey Voters, Meet the Candidates: 1st Debate for Governor Held

GALLOWAY, N.J. (AP) -

New Jersey voters have gotten an in-depth look at Democrats and Republicans running to succeed GOP Gov. Chris Christie.

Democrats took aim at wealthy front-runner Phil Murphy during Tuesday night’s first primary debates, which also saw Republicans attack each other and distance themselves from Christie.

The debates lacked the kind of rhetorical fireworks that accompanied last year’s presidential debates but offered candidates a chance to present themselves to a mostly undecided field of primary voters.

The Democrats meet again Thursday in Newark for their second and final debate on NJTV. Republicans will meet May 18, also in Newark on NJTV. The primary is June 6.

Here’s a closer look at what we learned from the debates at Stockton University:

AN INTRODUCTION FOR VOTERS

Most New Jersey voters have not decided whom they will support in the primary, according to recent polls.

The debate between Republicans Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and Democrats Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Murphy and Assemblyman John Wisniewski gave residents a glimpse of the candidates.

Voters learned a few key differentiating details about the candidates: Murphy has a key policy proposal for a public bank, modeled after one in North Dakota; Democrats largely agree on environmental issues, like rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative; Guadagno’s property tax plan is called the “circuit-breaker,” which would cap levies as a percentage of income; Ciattarelli discussed his five-point plan, including school funding and pension overhauls.

GOVERNORS’ GHOSTS

Some of the sharpest attacks came when Guadagno and Ciattarelli distanced themselves from Christie, who is term-limited and whose approval is near record lows.

Ciattarelli said the Christie-Guadagno administration “just haven’t been able to get it done” over the past two terms. “No Republican in this state has been more critical of the governor than Jack Ciattarelli,” he said.

Guadagno pivoted away from Christie.

“We need to make New Jersey better,” she said. “We need to make it more affordable.”

Democrats homed in on former one-term Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, whom they tied to Murphy.

Johnson said the same establishment that elected Christie and Corzine would elect Murphy.

“If we continue to play by the same old playbook written by the same insiders, do you think your lives will be any better?” Johnson asked.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP

The president, who is expected to make his New Jersey home a summertime retreat, could see his administration judged in part by how his party does in the country’s only two statewide elections this year, in New Jersey and Virginia.

Democrats on Tuesday night critiqued the GOP president, with Murphy calling him an “us-versus-them president” and Johnson questioning his stewardship of the Environmental Protection Agency, but Democrats largely held their fire against Mr. Trump, who lost in New Jersey.

Ciattarelli said Pres. Trump deserves support over his policies to defund sanctuary cities, which the GOP candidate said could send the wrong message to immigrants who might be encouraged to come to New Jersey. Guadagno echoed Christie and said Pres. Trump’s 90-day ban on travel into the United States for people from six Muslim-majority countries, which courts put on hold, was rolled out in a “bad way.”