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Some takeaways on the N.J. gubernatorial debate

Spoiler alert: there was no winner, despite claims by Democrats and Republicans

By David Wildstein, September 28 2021 10:32 pm

Jack Ciattarelli and Phil Murphy met for their first of two debates in the 2021 New Jersey Governor’s race on Tuesday night.  Regardless of your preference, this was a energetic discussion of issues and personalities – perhaps the most lively since Bill Cahill and Bob Meyner went at it 52 years ago.

Here are some questions – and answers – from readers tonight on how the two candidates did:

1. Who won the debate?

Both sides say they did – they literally claimed victory in statements emailed just as the debate ended, almost as if they were prewritten.  But objectively there was no winner or loser. Both candidates landed substantial punches — and no one committed a severe gaffe.  Ciattarelli needed to punch repeatedly, and he did that with force.  Murphy, who is 13-points ahead, needed to get through the hour without being mortally wounded.  He accomplished that – but also smacked Ciattarelli around more than a little bit.  Ciattarelli could have used a knockout if he hopes to move the needle and he didn’t get that.

2. Did anybody actually watch Ciattarelli and Murphy debate?

Absolutely.  This debate aired for an hour on the two ABC network TV affiliates, WABC Channel 7 in North Jersey and WPV Channel 6 in South Jersey.  This, folks, is real television with real audiences – in a time slot ordinarily reserved for Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.  If there is any debate that attracted undecided voters, this will be the one.

The network TV debate gets back to the “who won” question.  Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that Ciattarelli came across as a moderate – and the Republican desperately needs centrist, independents to vote for him.  Murphy repeatedly sought to connect with Black and Brown New Jerseyans; he needs minority voters to be energized and turn out and vote.

3. What did the candidates accomplish?

Ciattarelli and Murphy made it clear that they have very different beliefs on how New Jersey ought to be governed.  They have very different principles and distinct ideologies.  For Ciattarelli, who remains largely unknown to most voters just 35 days before Election Day, the debate was an opportunity to introduce himself to people who agree with him. For Murphy, who has strong approval ratings going into his re-election campaign, it was a chance to remind voters why they voted for him the first time.

4. What issues were covered — and what got missed?

The top two issues in this campaign, Covid and Taxes, were front and center.  The candidates were asked about climate change through multiple questions about weather events and emergency responses.  Murphy was put on the spot regarding nursing home deaths, how long he took to declare a state of emergency during Tropical Storm Ida, lingering questions about sexual harassment on his 2017 campaign, and his failure to win the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police.  Ciattarelli found himself under fire for his comments on that children weren’t vulnerable to Covid, for his attendance at a Stop the Steal rally, and his reference to teaching sodomy and critical race theory.  There were exchanges on abortion, guns, cannabis and immigration.

There were no unfair “gotcha” questions and no inane quizzes.  The moderators and panelists kept the debate serious but allowed the candidates to mix it up a little – an important component to political debates.  Ciattarelli and Murphy found some common ground on celebrating the diversity of the state, although they disagreed on some serious race relations issues.

Both candidates stayed on message.  Ciattarelli repeatedly quoted Murphy’s statement about “if taxes are your issue, then New Jersey’s probably not your state.”  Murphy frequently sought to tie Jack Ciattarelli to the Republicans like Donald Trump and Chris Christie.

While Murphy showed class in praising Ciattarelli as a husband and father, and publicly saluting his opponent’s son, who serves in the U.S. Army, he probably inflated an allegation that Ciattarelli supported defunding police by backing a “pay freeze” budget as a Somerset County freeholder more than a decade ago that led to ten sheriff’s officers being laid off.

Ciattarelli used humor to get two points across: he continued his attack that the Boston-born Murphy wasn’t a real New Jerseyan by joking that the governor’s Red Sox were swept by his team, the New York Yankees, last weekend; and he sort of reminded voters that Murphy was a Wall Street millionaire when he applauded the governor for serving when it wasn’t something “he has to do.”

There were some topics that surprisingly didn’t come up – in fairness, the debate was just one hour – but some issues that were supplanted by Covid and weather emergencies, like New Jersey Transit and congestion pricing, waits for unemployment benefits, beatings and sexual assaults at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and except for a brief mention in Ciattarelli’ closing statement, massive delays at the state motor vehicle agencies.   Murphy really didn’t say “Stronger and Fairer New Jersey” and he never mentioned a weekend Star-Ledger story about Ciattarelli that his campaign referred to as “explosive.”  There was no mention of the national debate in Washington over the infrastructure bill.

5.  Why did you make a comment on Twitter about live audiences at debates?

The attendees at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center became slightly thunderous at times – nothing terrible, but they had to be checked by the moderators at several moments.  Collectively, those delays might have created an opportunity for one additional question that might have better served voters watching at home.  It’s unlikely that attendees were undecided voters. Bottom line: the audience agreed to remain silent during the debate as a condition of their invitation as guests of the debate organizers.

The candidates for Lt. Governor, Diane Allen and Sheila Oliver, will debate on Tuesday, October 5 at 7 PM.  The debate is sponsored by the New Jersey Globe, the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, and Project Ready.  It will be livestreamed on the New Jersey Globe website and on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn, and aired live on WOND Talk Radio 1400.  The debate will also be broadcast on Saturday, October 9 at 4 PM on Talk Radio 77 WABC.

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