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N.J. governor hopefuls face off in first debate

Originally appeared in Courier Post on 10/11/01
By SANDY MCCLURE and LILO H. STAINTON Gannett State Bureau

NEWARK
Painting a patriotic picture of the Garden State's response to the World Trade Center tragedy and working to set themselves apart on taxes, debt and education, Democrat Jim McGreevey and Republican Bret Schundler sparred gently at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center during their first public debate of the campaign.

Steering the questions toward issues they wanted to discuss, the leading candidates verbally scuffled over gun control and removal of the Garden State Parkway tolls.

A visibly combative Schundler, statistics flying from his lips, looked deliberately into the camera and spoke directly to voters. McGreevey stiffly delivered polished lines - like, "Public schools meet your new best friend" - but tried to appear more personable, even throwing out a few jokes.

"We need a governor that will provide real relief, real reform," McGreevey said, calling for better oversight. "I believe government has to live within its means," he added, explaining that Schundler's plans to rid the parkway of tolls within nine months is impossible.

"It's irresponsible for a governor to make that commitment," he said.

But Schundler repeated that removing tolls is a "piece of cake." McGreevey's policies, Schundler countered, will compound expenses and drive up spending in these tough economic times. While Schundler promised not to raise taxes, McGreevey declined to rule out a potential tax increase, saying the recent attacks might present an unforeseen emergency.

"If you want higher taxes you should vote for him, if you want lower taxes vote for me," Schundler said, blasting his opponent as a "hypocrite" for his stance and votes on gun control.

"Bret, you can run but you can't hide," McGreevey followed, suggesting Schundler didn't have his facts straight.

Schundler, who has been criticized for comments and a policy statement made following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, used his opening statement to praise the firefighter and police heroes who helped search for survivors. He thanked these Americans for being willing to die for others and thanked his "friend" President Bush for efforts to increase security and intelligence.

McGreevey also praised the state's uniformed workers, many of whom endorsed him, and acting Gov. Donald DiFranceso's response. But he called for better airport security and an anti-terrorism task force in the Attorney General's Office. "We can always do better," McGreevey said.

When asked to choose from a list of characteristics important to leaders, both emphasized the need for courage. McGreevey, his voice choking, described how his father taught him about his namesake uncle, who lost his life in World War II. Schundler agreed McGreevey's uncle was a hero and America needs more like him.

After the debate, both sides claimed victory. McGreevey said the issue was honesty, while Schundler talked about taxes.

"I think New Jersey is looking for a governor who is going to be honest and straightforward," McGreevey said.

His campaign director, Steve DeMicco, said McGreevey made his positions on abortion and concealed weapons clear to New Jersey voters.

But Schundler said, "Do you want someone who is going to increase spending or do you want someone who is going to use the money the state already has."

Campaign manager Bill Pascoe said Schundler, "knocked it out of the park" on taxes.

The audience at NJPAC, about 500 strong, was mostly dressed in business attire. Some had attended a $75 dinner sponsored by the state Chamber of Commerce before the 8 p. m. event.

Before the debate began, crowds of supporters for each candidate jockeyed for position on the center's lawn in Newark. When Schundler's bus arrived his group surged, chanting "Go Bret Go" and raising yellow and blue campaign signs high. Moving toward the door from the east, they met with McGreevey supporters - hoisting their own red and blue placards - near the entrance, exchanging boisterous shouts and tough posturing, but not coming to blows.

They again traded cheers and taunts as the debate ended.

A poll released earlier in the day showed the McGreevey has again stretched his lead in the race to 17 percentage points. Polls released two weeks ago showed Schundler trailing McGreevey by 15, but a national GOP survey last week claimed the gap had narrowed to about 10 points.

Wednesday's exchange, the first of three televised encounters between the two leading candidates, is the first time Schundler and McGreevey have traded darts in public. On Tuesday they appeared before the editors of the seven Gannett newspapers, bitterly volleying statistics back and forth and attacking each other's underlying platforms. They struggled to come up with something positive to say about each other, when asked.

The NJPAC debate was aired live and will be rebroadcast Sunday at noon. On Tuesday the leading candidates will square off during a radio broadcast aired by NJ 101.5 FM radio and on Oct. 18 the Gannett newspapers, Comcast and NJ 101.5 FM will host a town meeting with the candidates live from Rowan University.


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