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Kinder, Gentler Chris Christie Wins First Debate by Not ‘Losing It’

Buono hammers away, but calm, cool, collected Christie won’t take the bait

With polls consistently showing him leading Democrat Barbara Buono by anywhere from 19 to 35 points, the only thing Gov. Chris Christie had to do to “win” his debate against Buono last night was not to “lose it” – his temper, that is.

To the delight of his Republican strategists and the chagrin of Democratic leaders, it was a kinder, gentler Christie that showed up at William Paterson University last night and on CBS-TV screens across the state.

Sure, Christie got in a few memorable jabs on taxes, asking Buono if she regretted any of the 154 taxes and fees she had voted to raise during her legislative career and asserting that he had to clean up the budget mess that Buono and former Gov. Jon Corzine left behind. That contention prompted the feisty Buono’s best retort when she told Christie to stop blaming Corzine for everything: “Governor, you have to man up. You have been in office for four years.”

But last night wasn’t about what Buono did to effectively articulate her policy differences with Christie. It was about what Christie didn’t do. Overall, Christie was “calm, cool, collected and in control,” just what his longtime political guru, William Palatucci wanted. “I just liked his demeanor,” Palatucci said approvingly afterwards.

“We didn’t see the real Chris Christie today,” Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), Buono’s campaign cochair, said with a touch of frustration. “We all know he speaks in a bullying language, but he tried to soften his image.”

There were few, if any, YouTube moments, and that added up to “a status quo debate” for a candidate content to sit on his giant lead, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute

“Barbara Buono hit all the points we knew she would hit,” Murray said. “But Chris Christie came across as solid, sober -- he understood this was not a place for his Town Hall witticisms. He came across as a leader, and he looked like someone who deserved to have a 19-point lead. She did fine, but fine is not good enough. She was nervous and stumbled over a couple of her favorite attack lines. That is to be expected. It was her first big debate. Chris Christie did a lot better tonight than in his first debate four years ago.”

Michael DuHaime, Christie’s chief strategist both this year and four years ago, smiled appreciatively when asked about the kinder, gentler Christie who showed up last night. “This is the real Chris Christie. A lot of people see those YouTube videos and think that’s the way he always is. But on YouTube, you only see one minute, not the whole man.”

DuHaime left little doubt, however, why Christie strategists feel confident running out the clock with the election just four weeks away. “We have a lot of support from Democrats and trade union groups. We had no Democratic or trade union support four years ago,” he noted. “We have much higher numbers among African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and conservative and moderate Democrats, we have overwhelming Republican support and we can’t do any better than the two-thirds of independent voters we won four years ago.”

Buono -- who is tired of reporters constantly asking “horse race” questions when most New Jersey voters agree with her, not Christie, on issues like gay marriage, gun control, abortion and minimum wage -- was visibly exasperated when moderator Christine Johnson, a CBS-2 TV anchor, opened the debate by demanding twice why she was having so much trouble “gaining traction” in such a Democratic state, then asking why President Obama wasn’t coming in to campaign for her.

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