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Unusual paths for candidates in NJ governor race

ISELIN, N.J. - ISELIN, N.J. (AP) — In January 1999, Jon Corzine was stripped of power as co-CEO at Goldman Sachs. The same month, Chris Christie made the first of a handful of trips to Austin, Texas, to meet with George W. Bush about a presidential run the Texas governor was considering.

Obscured then, those life-shifting events put both men on course to face off in November's New Jersey gubernatorial election.

Neither Corzine, in his first term as governor, and Christie, the state's former top federal prosecutor, took the more conventional route to high-level politics — starting with local politics and methodically working toward higher office. But each helped out other campaigns to gain clout and build important relationships with political kingmakers.

Pushed out of one of the most powerful positions on Wall Street in a struggle over his plans to take the company public, Corzine was already a deep thinker on policy issues and a major donor to Democrats when he decided to try politics himself, skipped the preliminaries and ran successfully for U.S. Senate.

Christie, a lawyer who lasted just one tumultuous term in county government and figured he was finished with elected office, became Bush's campaign lawyer in New Jersey and then U.S. attorney after Bush won.

That job made him one of the highest-profile officials in the state and put him in a position where he became not only someone who could make a serious run for governor, but also the star Republican in a state dominated by Democrats.


Christie was taken to Austin in early 1999 by his law partner, lobbyist Bill Palatucci, who had run George H.W. Bush's New Jersey campaigns in 1988 and 1992.

When the younger Bush decided to run, he asked Christie to be his lawyer in New Jersey. Together, Christie and Palatucci raised about $350,000 for Bush and the national Republican Party — enough to become members of Bush's Pioneer Club of supporters nationwide who raised at least $100,000 for him.

When Bush won, Christie said he applied online to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Palatucci said he also sent Christie's resume to Karl Rove, Bush's political director.

At the time, Christie was regarded as an unconventional choice for the job. A 39-year-old graduate of Seton Hall Law School, he was a securities lawyer at a mid-sized firm with no criminal law experience — and had never supervised a large staff.

"There were editorials all over the state of New Jersey that said, 'This guy's not up for the job, he doesn't have the requisite experience,'" he recalled in a recent stump speech to a Chamber of Commerce group.

But the confident Christie said he knew he could lead the U.S. Attorney's office's 100 lawyers if given the chance. Through his short time as a Morris County freeholder and his campaign connections, he also gained the confidence of the state's Republican hierarchy, who called Bush on his behalf.

In his time as U.S. attorney, his office doubled its resources for corruption investigations and won convictions of an astounding 130 public officials. He also oversaw convictions in two major terrorism cases, including the conviction last year of the so-called "Fort Dix Five," a group of men accused of plotting to kill military personnel.

"I think the record over the seven years that I was U.S. attorney proved that we were right and the editorial writers were wrong," he said in his stump speech.

By 2003, Republican leaders were calling on Christie to run for governor in 2005, figuring he was maybe the only member of the party with the clout to win.

He resisted. Corzine won over another wealthy entrepreneur, Douglas Forrester.


Corzine's entree into politics was even more unlikely.

Corzine, now 62, relinquished his title as co-CEO at Goldman, the storied Wall Street giant, amid a power struggle in January 1999. The next month, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, announced he would not seek re-election.

At the time, New Jersey's other senator, Robert Torricelli, was chairman of the national Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, in charge of raising money for Democratic senate candidates. Torricelli said that soon after Lautenberg announced his plans, he received a call from one of the country's top Democratic donors. The donor said Corzine was interested in running for Senate.

"It hadn't occurred to me" that Corzine might run, Torricelli said. "He was a successful businessman. He had become one of the top experts in investment banking in the country."

Torricelli said he first tried to tell Corzine why the rigors of running for and holding public office might not suit someone not accustomed to harsh public criticism. When Corzine persisted, he agreed to help, giving Corzine a list of about 50 prominent New Jersey leaders he should get to know if he was serious.

Corzine toured the state, meeting with officials in diners and activists in law offices before deciding within a few months to run.

While he did not have a political network, Democratic leaders recognized that he had something else: A lot of money. When Goldman went public that May 1999, his stake was worth a reported $300 million; he spent $63 million of it in his run for the Senate.

As he left Goldman, Corzine was not positive he wanted to run for office. He thought he could do more good by using some of his fortune to run for Senate or to pay for education reform efforts.

But Corzine, unusually circumspect and soft-spoken for a politician, said the choice became clear.

"My life had been focused primarily on my professional life and family life," Corzine said. "When the chance — both by change of circumstances in my professional career and Sen. Lautenberg's decision not to run — it was something I wanted to do to give back."


The campaign so far has been nasty. Corzine, with a reputation for running ruthless and costly campaigns, has aired several commercials alleging ethical breaches by Christie as U.S. attorney. One ad says Christie used his influence to get off without tickets in two traffic incidents. Christie has brushed aside the charges as trivial and unfounded.

Christie has charged that Corzine has conflicts of interests with his investments, focusing on a hedge fund he owns that has ties to the company that owns four Atlantic City casinos. Christie says it's a conflict; Corzine says it's not.

Though New Jersey is heavily Democratic, Corzine has not been a popular governor, largely because the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes have continued to rise under his watch. Corzine says he has kept the recession from hurting New Jersey even more.

Polls have shown Christie ahead for most of the race, though it's tightening; two polls released in the last week put the candidates within 5 percentage points for the first time. Independent candidate Chris Daggett is also drawing more than 10 percent of the votes in one of them.

Pollsters expect the results Nov. 3 will be close — perhaps a photo finish for a race long in the making.

"Were we inevitably heading for this path? I don't know," Christie said. "But it's been an interesting 10 years."

State & Region