Jon Corzine's $33M Investment

Jon Corzine's record-shattering $33 million spending spree on his Senate campaign has transformed the former investment banker from unknown to favorite in a matter of months and emerged as perhaps the biggest issue in the race.

Up until recently, Corzine and his Democratic primary opponent, former Gov. Jim Florio, were largely at odds over the tax increases that cost Florio re-election in 1993 and how to preserve Social Security and provide health insurance to the working poor.

But with days to go until Tuesday's primary, Florio - who has spent only about $2 million on his own campaign - has tried to make the money the issue.

"His spending is obscene and what he's spending money on is despicable," Florio said this week.

Venting angrily about "Watergate-style" tactics, Florio blasted his opponent over a disclosure that Corzine's New York lawyer used part of a $200,000 retainer to hire private investigators to run background checks on Florio and his campaign aides. Corzine denied any knowledge of it and said he ordered the lawyer to cease at once.

Corzine's final primary report to the Federal Election Commission showed he had spent nearly $15 million in just 47 days in April and May.

He has put out an additional $5.8 million since, bringing his total spending to $33 million and smashing the U.S. record for a Senate race - the $30 million spent by Republican Michael Huffington during his losing 1994 bid for office in California.

Among other things, Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs chief executive whose personal fortune is estimated at $400 million, has contributed an unprecedented $600,000 to county and state Democratic organizations.

"The interesting thing about this race as I see it is that he is not just buying television time, he is buying politicians, he is buying loyalty of people directly," said Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group.

"It is truly breathtaking to behold the amount of money that will be awash in New Jersey this year in this election campaign. You don't want it to become the dominant issue of the campaign, but it has here."

The effectiveness of the investment seems to show in Corzine's 26-point lead over Florio in a Quinnipiac College poll on May 25. In March, the polling organization gave Florio a 2-to-1 advantage.

One reason given for the high spending is that New Jersey has no major network TV stations of its own. New Jersey politicians must buy airtime in two of the most expensive media markets in the country, New York and Philadelphia.

"Until the media markets open up free space as well for aspiring candidates it is a real dilemma for New Jersey candidates," said State Democratic Chairman Tom Giblin.

Corzine spokesman Steve Goldstein said outsiders need to understand the man Corzine is up against. Florio is a former Navy an and ex-boxer who is one of the toughest figures in New Jersey politics.

"People from outside New Jersey haven't had a first-hand taste of Jim Florio's entrenchment in politics over the past five decades," Goldstein said.

At stake is the Senate seat held by the retiring Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Republican Gov. Christie Whitman had said she would run for the seat but dropped out last fall, leaving four lesser-known Republicans to compete: Rep. Bob Franks, state Sen. William Gormley, Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger and Ramapo College professor Murray Sabrin.

Residents who said they planned to vote Tuesday said they had mixed feelings about Corzine's heavy spending.

"It turns me off," said Joe Meszaros, 61, of Roebling. "He is trying to buy his way in. That is what the first appearance is, anyway." But Meszaros said he remains undecided: "It all depends on what they stand for."

Kathy Burghgraef, 56, of South Brunswick, said Corzine's spending might sway her vote against him, "but I think the whole system needs to be changed."