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New Jersey Nasty

On the afternoon of September 24, Jon Corzine makes his way to the back of the aptly named Chairman’s Grill, in the lobby of the Meadowlands Sheraton. He eases into the corner booth wearing an imposing black pin-striped suit. Lately, operatives are talking about a shift in the race. The Corzine camp had seized on Christie’s plan to end mandates for insurance companies, claiming it would result in women’s not getting mammograms. (Christie issued his own attack ad calling Corzine’s claims “awful”.) I ask Corzine if he’s surprised he’s fighting to stay in office. He tells me he’s happy things aren’t any worse: “I’m glad it’s close, with what’s going on in this economy?”

Corzine’s political career has always had an accidental quality to it. When he was pushed out of Goldman Sachs amid a power grab by rival Hank Paulson in 1999, he ran for the Senate because it seemed what a former Goldman CEO should do.

During the presidential primary, Corzine campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton. Democrats close to Corzine told me he wanted to position himself to be Treasury secretary in a Hillary administration. Corzine’s spokesperson denies this. This spring, with his polls numbers sagging, rumors swirled that Corzine might not pursue a second term or even that the Democrats wanted him off the ticket. In March, Senator Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross, and Corzine’s senior advisers held a private meeting at Corzine’s Hoboken apartment. Menendez in particular was frustrated by Corzine’s refusal to push back against Christie’s attacks. “They gave him a kick in the ass,” one adviser familiar with the meeting said.

In the present environment, Corzine’s original selling point—his financial expertise—is a liability, a fact Christie has exploited. The attacks deeply frustrate Corzine, who prides himself on his midwestern mien. “I was out of sorts with a lot of my colleagues on Wall Street when I was there. I was more pro-regulatory than other folks,” he says. “I’m a guy who grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, worked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in college at the Post Office, was in the Marine Corps, went to night school to get my M.B.A., and started at the bottom.”

When I ask him about Christie’s complaints that businesses are fleeing New Jersey for lower taxes elsewhere, Corzine flashes anger. “That’s complete bullshit!” he snaps. “There is a recession. This guy’s description of New Jersey is a caricature of what it actually is. He’s the most negative human being of what the status of New Jersey is.” Corzine brings up Christie’s May 18 interview with Sean Hannity, when he said he might refuse Obama’s stimulus funds. “He was buying into the Sanford-Jindal-Palin view,” Corzine says, almost incredulously. “Now you don’t hear any talk about it.”

Corzine’s relationship with the White House has been another source of concern. Some Corzine aides were said to be miffed that Obama didn’t gush more over Corzine during a visit in July, though the campaign denies this. Corzine’s friend Orin Kramer, a Democratic fund-raiser, said that Corzine, when he was chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2004 when Obama was a long shot, “went privately to a few friends and said, ‘[Obama] is the most talented guy running in the country, you should help him.’ The president is well aware of that.”

Democrats are now confident that once voters tune in to the race in earnest, Christie’s conservative positions—he’s pro-life—will rally the party’s base back to Corzine. “At the end of the day, it will be what saves Corzine ass,” one operative says.

With only a month to go, Christie understands the uphill nature of his campaign. “I’m not the front-runner,” he offers. “I’m going to run through the tape on this, and run like I’m behind.”