With more New Jerseyans identifying high property taxes as the No. 1 issue facing the state, most of the 90-minute debate broadcast live on New Jersey Network, the state's public television station, was focused on taxes and spending.
A poll released Thursday showed a tightening race, with Corzine cutting into Christie's early lead.
Christie said that over the past four years, Corzine has failed to provide relief from crushing taxes that are driving businesses and residents to relocate to other states. Corzine defended his record, which he compiled as the nation struggles through the most serious recession in memory. Corzine, Daggett and a panel of reporters repeatedly asked Christie to specify how he could cut taxes and still balance the budget.
Christie has said he would encourage towns to share services, lay off state workers and analyze the budget for savings. But he has not released a detailed plan to reduce property taxes or reduce the state's deficit.
Christie attacked Corzine for raising the top income tax level to 10.7 percent to help balance the budget. He blamed the governor for New Jersey's 9.7 percent unemployment rate and for failing to lower property taxes, which average $7,045 per homeowner, the highest in the nation.
"The governor has to step up and admit it - his economic policies haven't worked and we have to change course," Christie said.
Corzine said he temporarily raised taxes for the wealthiest residents rather than those who earn less. He said he also continued to fully fund property-tax rebates to many senior citizens and younger homeowners earning less than $50,000.
Daggett pushed the tax restructuring plan he announced this week, which would cut property taxes by up to 25 percent but would expand the sales tax to a range of items and services that are not currently taxed.
"My plan is very specific," Daggett said. "We're going to make the system fairer, more balanced to make New Jersey more competitive and more affordable."
While Christie said he would not raise taxes, Corzine refused to take a no-tax pledge. Instead, he said raising taxes would be a last resort while pointing out that the governor is obligated under the state constitution to balance the budget.
The debate also had some light moments.
After being asked by a viewer for their positions on a bill that would allow chronically ill patients to use marijuana, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, voiced concerns.
"There have to be sufficient safeguards so that we don't turn into California where everybody with a headache is going out getting high."
Asked for a rebuttal, Corzine deadpanned: "If you have a headache, it probably should be excluded from the reasons why people get medical marijuana."
And, when Corzine and Christie praised Daggett's candidacy in a state where independents historically have not done well, Daggett replied: "Sounds like both these two guys might vote for me."