MONTCLAIR, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) - Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic opponent Barbara Buono exchanged heated jabs Tuesday, in a debate that also saw multiple interruptions by spectators.
Mike Schneider of NJTV moderated the debate at the Alexander Kasser Theater on the Montclair State University Campus.
Christie continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls leading up to the Nov. 5 election.
Buono, Christie To Face Off In Final Gubernatorial Debate
Christie began by reiterating his defense of using strong language against opponents.
'When folks act in a certain matter, they know I'm going to call them out on it," Christie said, adding that his penchant for telling it like it is has not interfered with his ability for bipartisan success – including successful efforts to pass $110 billion in pension benefit reform, a property tax cap, and several budgets.
"The most important thing is that folks know that I am who I am," Christie said.
But Buono fired back, calling Christie a bully.
"I think that the governor -- at the last debate, he defended his name-calling – bullying – by saying it was an example of strong leadership," she said. "He said it was an example of straight talk, but I disagree. I think it's an example of disrespect of people's opinions when they happen to disagree with him."
When asked about 50 state Democratic officials' choice to endorse Christie, Buono accused Christie of being complicit with political machines of questionable ethics.
"Governor Christie represents the worst combination of bullying and bossism, and that's what has motivated some of these Democrats to support him," Buono said.
In particular, Buono took issue with Democratic Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo's choice to endorse Christie. DiVincenzo has been accused by New Jersey State Election Law Enforcement by misusing more than $16,000 in campaign funds, and failing to disclose over $72,000 in campaign spending over two years, according to published reports.
"You're not interested in cleaning out the boardwalk empire of the New Jersey bosses and backroom politics," Buono told Christie.
Christie snapped back, "Joe DiVincenzo's sitting in the front row now, and I'm proud to have his endorsement, and I wish you did."
He also accused Buono of hypocrisy for supporting former Middlesex County Sheriff Joe Spicuzzo, who is now serving time after pleading guilty in June to a scheme in which jobs were shaken down for thousands of dollars. He said Buono said he would bring "honor and integrity" when he was named to a commissioner post at the New Jersey Exposition and Sports Authority.
"You want to start throwing stones tonight, you'd better get out of your glass house," Christie said.
The minimum wage, the state budget, and the state's continuing unemployment crisis were also major themes in the debate. Buono accused Christie of giving tax breaks to big businesses at the expense of small businesses, while Christie accused Buono of favoring out-of-control spending.
"To pay for all of her extravagant promises, Senator Buono will raise taxes," Christie said at one point.
Christie argued in favor of a minimum wage hike, but said he vetoed bills earlier this year to increase the minimum wage because of the specifics. He said he favors phasing in a higher minimum wage over three years, and not connecting it to automatic increases based on inflation.
"I'm opposed to people getting automatic raises every year regardless of the health of the business they work for, and regardless of their performance," Christie said.
Buono called Christie's position insensitive to the poor.
"The governor said he was consistent at the last debate, and he is consistent," she said. "He's consistently on the side of the wealthy, and he's turned his back on the working poor and the middle class. How can you seriously be debating whether or not we should increase the minimum wage $1.25… and tying it to the cost of living."
The governors were also allowed to ask questions of each other. Buono said private insurance companies are making it difficult for Superstorm Sandy to rebuild, and asked by Christie has not taken on insurance companies as the governors of other states have – including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
"The reason that we've taken the approach that we've taken is because it's been successful," he said, "and the fact is that I'm not going to have a fight with every person that Senator Buono wants me to have a fight with."
He said 95 percent of the insurance claims involving Sandy victims have been settled, and with far better settlement amounts that were seen in New York or Connecticut.
Meanwhile, Christie asked how Buono would fund her education plan, which calls for $3 billion in additional funding. He said the only source she has mentioned is $650 million in a tax on millionaires.
"Are you going to raise the sales tax again like you did in 2006?" he asked.
"My plan for school funding is going to be phased in, just like the school funding reform act that I fought hard to pass. It was phased in over a 10-year period within fiscal constraints," Buono replied. "But what I will tell you is that my budget will be focused on making public education a priority, not a whipping boy."
Christie was also asked about his choice to appeal a state court decision ordering same-sex marriages to become legal in New Jersey effective this week. He repeated his stated position on the issue.
"I believe that if we're going to change the fundamental nature of a 2,000-year-old institution, that that should be done by one entity and one entity only, and that's the voters of the State of New Jersey. Not by the Supreme Court, not by 121 politicians in Trenton. It should be done by the people by referendum," he said.
Christie said he would uphold the law in favor of same-sex marriage if the people of the state voted to legalize it.
Buono has an openly lesbian daughter. Christie was asked how he would react if one of his children told him that he or she was gay.
"If my children came to me and said that they were gay, I would grab them and hug them and tell them I love them, just like I would do with any of my children who came to me with news that they wanted to give to me that they thought was important enough to open themselves in that way," Christie said. "But what I would also tell them is that dad believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that's my position."
Buono took another jab at Christie as she repeated her view that human rights issues should not be decided by public referendum.
"The governor is consistent. He's consistently aligned his views with – oh, I don't know – his social views are aligned with Sarah Palin, the Iowa Republican Caucus, but certainly not in line with New Jerseyans," she said. "You know, this is a human rights issue. This governor equates it with guns and taxes."
The candidates did agree on a few issues, including supporting jughandles over left-hand turns.
"I've always loved jughandles, and 'til the day I die, I'm going to love jughandles," Christie said. Buono agreed that jughandles were the safer traffic option.
The candidates also discussed the continuing government shutdown, and the tent city of homeless people in impoverished Camden, N.J., among several other issues.
On two separate occasions, the debate was interrupted when spectators began booing or yelling at the candidates. The spectators' words were not heard, but moderator Schneider chided them, warning anyone that interfered with the debate would be removed.
"Run for office, get your own debate," Schneider said to one of the spectators.
In their first debate last week, Buono attacked Christie as an ambitious politician whose every calculation is based on his national aspirations.
Christie didn't rule out a 2016 presidential run. But the governor also stressed his ability to reach consensus with New Jersey's Democrat-led Legislature.
Meantime, Christie has raised as much as he's allowed under a public campaign finance program in his re-election bid while Buono, lags far behind.
But a report released Tuesday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission found that spending from outside groups is closer, though it still favors Christie, a Republican.
Outside groups spent close to $10 million to promote Christie going back to the June primary, the commission reported.
Buono benefited from about $8 million in independent spending, though a portion of that money is directed at influencing state legislative races.
The independent groups are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns. Tracking their activity can be tricky; most do not disclose their donors, and some are not required to report how much they spend, either.
The groups, which were a major factor in last year's presidential election, have spent more than $22 million in New Jersey's governor's and legislative races and on ballot questions, according to the commission's tally. With nearly three weeks to go before the election - and the traditionally heaviest spending period still ahead - the independent spending is already well above the New Jersey record of $14 million four years ago.
Both Christie and Buono are accepting public matching funds in the election, a decision that caps their own spending at $12.2 million, with more than $8 million of that coming from the public coffers.
Last week, Christie's campaign received its last disbursement in the program, maxing out what it could get.
Buono has submitted $1.1 million in funds she's raised to the commission and has been sent $1.2 million in matching money.
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