The voters said they were disappointed with how Gov. Jon Corzine has run the state, doubtful that Republican Chris Christie's would do better, and skeptical that independent Chris Daggett can pull an upset victory. Still, half the participants say they are leaning toward the lesser-known, lesser-funded Daggett.
"What happened to the politicians serving the people? Isn't that more important than being a Democrat or a Republican?" asked David Marcus, a 59-year-old data systems analyst from Edison, reflecting the cynicism and frustration of the group.
The 10 voters - three registered Republicans, two registered Democrats and five unaffiliated - were selected from a pool of participants in prior Monmouth University polls, were familiar with the candidates and intend to vote on Tuesday. They spent 90 minutes discussing the issues and candidates.
In the end, five said they were leaning toward Daggett, though two of them said they would switch to another candidate if the independent's poll numbers don't improve. Two favored Christie, but one said she would vote for Daggett if she felt he had a chance. One said she would vote for Corzine. Two were truly undecided - "on the edge," as they put it.
Recent polls have shown the race between Corzine and Christie essentially tied with Daggett trailing. They also show about 5 percent of likely voters remain undecided, and that a greater percentage of those who have settled on a candidate say they may change their minds.
A Quinnipiac University Poll out Wednesday has Corzine leading Christie 43 percent to 38 percent among likely voters, with Daggett at 13 percent. The poll has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
Five people in the focus group said they had ruled out casting a vote for Corzine, the unpopular Democratic incumbent, two ruled out Daggett because of doubts over his ability to win and one had crossed out Christie because his campaign lacks specifics.
Six of the 10 said they probably would have voted for Christie if Daggett weren't in the race. A couple said they were re-evaluating Corzine's job performance after being disappointed by Christie's candidacy.
"I was waiting to hear something from Chris Christie, but so far I haven't," said Gus Brandstetter or Middletown. "He's just showing these bland commercials."
"He's playing it safe," said someone else.
James Flynn, a financial adviser from Mendham, said he believed Daggett could do a good job as governor, and a good showing would send a message to the major parties that an independent could do well in New Jersey. Still, he said he's doubtful Daggett has the support to win.
Frank Cassera, of Mount Laurel, agreed, saying he would look at late polls before deciding whether to vote for Daggett. He'll do so, he said, if he feels Daggett "has a shot."
Research supports the view that voters tend to back away from candidates they don't believe can win.
Asked what issue is most important to them, six identified the economy, taxes or spending. All wanted to know in more detail what each candidate would do to turn the state's economy around, reduce state debt and retain and create jobs.
"They have to make some hard choices and they shouldn't be afraid - that's what leadership is about," said Carolyn Kizlinski, an analyst at an electrical company from Keansburg who said she would have retired by now had it not been for the high cost of health insurance. "They've got to stop spending money they don't have."
"Individuals don't deficit-spend," said Rachel Zetooney, a stay-at-home mom from Eatontown. "Governments shouldn't either."
The group used words like "liberal" and "rich" to describe Corzine, who is seeking a second term. They described Christie, a former federal prosecutor, as "aggressive" and "ambitious." Daggett, a former state environmental official, was labeled mostly as "unknown."
None said they felt a personal connection to any candidate.
Asked by the moderator to name the family member each candidate would most likely be, the group members paused for a moment.
"A rich uncle you never see," Zetooney said of Corzine.
"A brother-in-law who talks too much," Cassera, a former sales executive at a medical publisher who has been unemployed since March, said of Christie. "An in-law of some kind," said Marylou Lunin, of Westfield.
"Somebody your cousin just started dating," Cassera said of Daggett.
"I can't even imagine the other two being in my family," Marcus said of Corzine and Christie. The others nodded.
"I'd like to live in Jon Corzine's neighborhood," offered Zetooney.