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New Jersey Voters Evaluate Gubernatorial Candidates' First Debate, Weigh In On Most Important Issues

WEEHAWKEN, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- We are a little more than one month from Election Day for New Jersey governor, and voters are evaluating the candidates' first debate.

Gov. Phil Murphy is doubling down on his debate stage pledge for no new taxes.

"What I didn't say last night is 'I hope taxes go down,'" the governor said Wednesday.

Tuesday night, the incumbent Democrat butted heads with his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli for their first debate in the governor's race.

"It looked like they were just arguing back and forth, like throwing shots at each other," Newark resident Sierra Johnson said.

CBS2's Ali Bauman went around asking voters, after watching the debate, what their most important issues are in this race.

Almost everyone answered -- the pandemic.

"This vaccine tension is very tough, so I hope the new governor can try to figure it out," Little Falls resident Lauren Kaniuk said.

So what say the candidates?

"I'm vaccinated," Ciattarelli said. "I promoted my vaccination. I encourage people to get vaccinated. Do I believe that government has a right to tell people they have to take a medicine? No, I don't."

"You can't look for wiggle room on vaccines and 'your body, your choice.' You can't ignore the science as it relates to masking," Murphy said.

What else do Jersey voters care about?

"Taxes, taxes, taxes," Nutley resident Betty Tomasulo said.

Businessman and former Assemblyman Ciattarelli took the governor to task on New Jersey having some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

"His last budget's $46 billion, $11 billion more. He's raised every single tax and tolls," he said.

"I hate to let pesky facts get in the way, but you know why the budget is up, Assemblyman? Because of the mess you left," Murphy said.

Election Day is Nov. 2.

"I'm still undecided," one man said.

A new poll from Stockton University has Murphy at 50% with Ciattarelli at 41%.

"I feel Murphy's doing a great job, so I'm just gonna stick with that train," Jersey City resident Henrika Smith said.

READ MORE: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Republican Candidate Jack Ciattarelli Face Off In Fiery Debate

"I think he handled the pandemic terribly. I think small business is getting hammered. You can see it all around, so I think there's some things he's got to address if he wants to get re-elected," Andover resident Charlie Gartland said.

In the spin room, post-debate, Murphy cut off CBS2's Jessica Layton from asking if there's any COVID rate in schools that could make him consider a vaccine requirement for teachers.

His office swiftly apologized and sent CBS2 the following statement:

"Governor Murphy thanks our educators for their tireless commitment to our students, even amid the challenging circumstances of the past 18 months. We are confident that school districts across New Jersey will report that the vast majority of teachers opted get vaccinated ahead of the October 18 deadline. While we will continue to encourage and prioritize vaccination for all who are eligible, we must also ensure that schools have sufficient staff to remain open for full-time, in-person instruction."


The candidates' second and final debate is mid-October.

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