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

Johnson came at Christie with an equally blunt question about his bullying manner, but the governor belied his image by responding coolly, “What the people in New Jersey want is someone who’s real and will tell them the truth as he sees it,” not “prepackaged blow-dried politicians.” He added that “using direct and blunt language is something I have done my whole life and is the way my mother raised me.”

Republicans who privately expressed concern that Christie would turn off women voters by berating Buono in one of his patented YouTube moments didn’t have to worry. Asked about his disagreement with Buono on gay marriage, he credited Buono as a person of “good will” who believes in her position. When the two candidates were asked to say what they admired about the other, Buono said snippily, “He’s good on late night TV, but bad for New Jersey,” while Christie responded by praising her as a good mother who had dedicated more than 20 years of her life to public service in the Legislature.

For Buono, the debate last night and a second televised debate at Montclair State University next Tuesday night represented her best opportunity to make her case against Christie before the November 5 election, John Currie, the state Democratic chairman noted, adding that “she had to make the most of it, and she did.”

The big problem for Buono is that she has raised only about $2 million so far, while Christie already has raised the maximum $11 million permitted under state election laws for those accepting matching funds. The second debate on October 15 will be overshadowed by the Cory Booker-Steve Lonegan special U.S. Senate election the next day, then Buono will be carpet-bombed by Christie ads she won’t have the money to match in the 20 days leading up to the election.

That is why Christie’s strategists were so pleased with last night’s debate -- even if Buono arguably landed the most punches and supporters like Currie and Watson-Coleman could pronounce her the winner on points. Buono needs to win by a knockout, not by a split decision, and now only next Tuesday’s debate remains.

Furthermore, unlike Lonegan, whose unwavering support for the Tea Party threatens to torpedo his Senate candidacy if Obama and the GOP House majority remain deadlocked over the federal government shutdown and raising the federal debt ceiling, Christie actually stands to benefit politically the longer the stalemate continues.

The GOP governor has been running on a theme of bipartisanship since his famous hug with Obama after superstorm Sandy, and he used last night’s debate to remind voters of his cooperation with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to overhaul pension and benefit laws, revise interest arbitration, and impose a 2 percent cap on federal spending.

“Barbara Buono wouldn’t know about that because she hasn’t been a part of it,” Christie said pointedly, referring to Buono’s decision to buck Sweeney on the controversial pension and health benefits bill, which ultimately led to her being ousted as Senate majority leader.

Buono used last night’s debate to hammer away at Christie on property taxes and the economy -- the two issues on which the GOP governor gets the lowest grades from New Jersey voters in public opinion polls. She asserted that New Jersey has 400,000 people out of work and ranks near the bottom in economic growth because of “Chris Christie’s failed supply-side, trickle-down, Romney-style economics.”

She contended that Christie’s provision of $2.1 billion in tax credits to corporations was the wrong strategy, and that the state should provide tax credits to small businesses. And she criticized Christie’s veto of Democratic-sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. “That is a starvation wage,” she said. “It’s just reflective of the governor protecting millionaires and the wealthy and turning his back on the middle class.”

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