Squaring off Tuesday night in the first gubernatorial debate against state Sen. Barbara Buono, Gov. Chris Christie said that a return to Democratic leadership in the governor's office would prove harmful to New Jersey's economic viability.
In the hour-long debate held at William Paterson University in Wayne and televised on CBS in both the New York and Philadelphia markets, Christie evaluated his administration's performance in contrast to that of former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, saying that when he took office in 2009, the state's economic prospects seemed bleak.
"We have dug out of quite the hole in New Jersey," Christie said.
Using his coined term of the "New Jersey comeback," Christie stressed the need to "stay the course," noting that his administration has worked to help create private-sector jobs, cut business taxes and lower unemployment rates.
"We've worked hard and we're proud of what we've done," Christie said.
Buono criticized Christie for his economic policies, which she twice referred to as "Romney-style," and said that the window for blaming Corzine and past administrations for economic failures has closed.
"Governor, you have to man up," Buono said. "You've been in office for four years. It's time to own your record and defend your record."
Christie defended an attack from Buono on the proliferation of corporate tax credits, saying that as a legislator, she had voted for every single tax credit plan implemented by his administration.
"Apparently she was for it before she was against it," Christie said. "And we've heard that before, haven't we?"
In clarifying her position, Buono said that she supports corporate tax credits as a "piece" of economic growth but that it "cannot be the sum and substance." She added that more credits need to be geared toward growing small businesses.
"This governor has ignored small businesses and left them behind," Buono said. "My administration would help small businesses."
On Atlantic City and the state's gaming future, Christie called for the need to "transform Atlantic City from purely a gaming destination to a resort destination (and) to a convention destination." Christie noted that while gaming revenue is down in New Jersey, non-gaming revenue is up.
Buono said that while Atlantic City is important to state's economy, more focus should instead be placed on growing New Jersey's middle-class so that residents have enough money to visit in the first place.
The two differed on everything, including raising the minimum wage. Buono said it was another example of Christie protecting the rich to the detriment of the working poor, gaining applause from the crowd.
Christie said he was protecting businesses who ultimately would have to pay the increase.
"The money doesn't come off a magic money tree," he said.
Perhaps Christie's best line came after saying Buono had voted to raise taxes, by his count, 154 times.
"Is there one you regret?" he asked.
The candidates also touched on a number of other issues such as the legalization of marijuana, Sandy recovery and the prospects of Christie running for president in 2016.
They also had a lighter moment when each were asked to say something nice about the other.
Christie went personal.
"She's obviously a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service," he said.
Buono went for Christie's personality: "He's good on late-night TV."
Christie and Buono will meet again next Tuesday, Oct. 15, at Montclair State University for their second and final debate.