A big wallet makes, may break, a contender

Jon Corzine will spend a record $35 million in a New Jersey US Senate primary.

Jon Corzine is testing the limits of the adage, "you get what you pay for."

The multimillionaire is all over New Jersey's airwaves, dispensing cash like an ATM with no withdrawal limits. There he is with 30-second spots on the "Today Show." Switch to the Food Channel - he's there, too. Go to a news show - you can't miss his beard and flannel shirt.

All those ads, not to mention the mass mailings, consultants, pollsters, helicopters, and walking-around money, will amount to a record amount for a primary. By tomorrow, when New Jersey voters go the polls, Mr. Corzine, a Democrat, could spend as much as $35 million of his own money in his bid for the nomination.

The spending has made the race one of the most widely watched in the country - and has allowed an unkown to pull even with one of the Garden State's most notable politicians. But some are now wondering if Corzine has spent too much.

Unlike other millionaires who have spent a lot of their own money, Corzine is going beyond the airwaves. He's feted voters with dinners and given large sums of money to county political parties.

"No one has ever seen anything like this," says Cliff Zukin, a political commentator at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "He's actually in danger of overspending - of making the money the issue."

If Corzine wins the primary, it could have national implications, since the Garden State is a key swing state in the fall. A strong Democratic showing could help Vice President Al Gore. If the voters reject Corzine's brand of liberalism, it could tilt the state to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Corzine says he has no regrets about spending the money, most of it earned while he was at the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. "I don't have any regrets about trying to communicate effectively with the voters," he said in an interview. "I will have regrets if I am not able to carry the agenda that I am trying to talk to people about."

In some ways he had no choice but to open his wallet. He had never run for public office and was hardly known outside of Wall Street. His primary foe, former Gov. Jim Florio, has statewide recognition. And even though many Democrats still dislike Mr. Florio for losing power to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), he also has many loyal supporters.

"I am sufficiently hard-headed, so you are not going to drive me out with a stick, because I am offended by the obscene amount of money, the despicable thing he's doing with the money," said Florio in an interview.

Pundits assert that the sheer amount of money is taking on an almost hypnotic quality. "People are fascinated and appalled that someone could spend the equivalent of the winnings in a multistate lottery on a primary," says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

But Corzine says the money rarely comes up as he campaigns around the state. Indeed, during a morning of stops at senior-citizen residences, the talk is about Social Security and healthcare, not campaign spending.

If elected, the former investment banker says he wants to concentrate on healthcare issues. "I think it's disorganized and chaotic and needs a very thorough plan to get it organized and funded and held accountable," he says. He advocates programs such as government-funded prescription drugs and national regulation of the insurance industry.

Many of Corzine's positions place him squarely in the liberal camp in a state that is moderate. "People have no idea how far to the left he really is," says Mr. Sabato.

Florio would like to let the voters know. "The Republicans will take him apart," he says. But Florio has few funds for the message. "It's a whisper against a yell," says Mr. Zukin.

For his part, Corzine keeps running ads reminding the voters about Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase when he became governor. "He did too much, too soon, and it was a broken promise," says Corzine.

The two candidates could have debated the issues, such as foreign affairs, the environment, electric-utility deregulation, and health are. However, after their first verbal encounter, which many thought was won by Florio, Corzine has avoided any further debates.

Over the past two weeks, Florio has been lambasting empty chairs at candidates' forums, while Corzine keeps pouring in money. Last week, the Florio staff estimated Corzine spent $2.6 million on ads. "That's competitive with commercial enterprises," he says.

For his part, Corzine has been keeping investment bankers' hours - 18- and 19-hour days - greeting commuters in the morning and talking to trade unions in the evenings.

He jokes that he has lost 15 pounds since he started the campaign. Political pundits are amazed - not at the weight loss, but at the cost per pound.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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