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New Jersey's gubernatorial race is shaping up as a key test of how voters will judge Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of his fellow Democratic and Republican colleagues will face similar tests in 2022.
Murphy saw his approval skyrocket early in the pandemic, and a recent Monmouth University poll showed 52% of New Jerseyans still approve of the job he is doing. The state was hit hard by COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 and Murphy is still navigating the state's recovery.
Starting next week, employees in preschools and grade schools and state agencies and colleges will be required to get vaccinated or be subject to testing. Similar requirements will take effect in November for workers at child care facilities. Murphy's approach is slightly less strict than neighboring New York City, where teachers must be vaccinated and do not have a testing option, and diners have to show proof of vaccination to eat indoors.
Murphy's opponent, former Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, promotes vaccinations, but doesn't support vaccine mandates. Ciattarelli and Murphy have also sparred over the governor's executive order requiring masks in schools.
"I believe whether or not your child wears a mask to school is the decision of a parent," Ciattarelli told supporters in Holmdel, New Jersey on Thursday morning. The line received loud applause and cheers from those attending the event.
Murphy insists that those cheering Ciattarelli's views about masks in schools are in the minority. He may be right. A recent Suffolk University poll found 58% of New Jersey voters support the mask mandate.
"Overwhelmingly, parents and kids in our state get it," Murphy said in an interview with CBS News. "There's a minority that doesn't see it that way. There's no question about that. I would just beg them to know that it brings us no joy to make our kids wear masks, but this is the right public health thing to do to keep as many of our kids and educators and staff as safe as possible."
Murphy wants to see cases and hospitalization rates drop before he considers lifting the mask mandate and said getting vaccines approved for children under age 12 is a critical step. He added that COVID "is probably never going to be going away," but he believes it will be more like the flu, and New Jerseyans will "be able to conduct life normally and responsibly."
Ciattarelli also received a warm welcome from his crowd when he told the crowd there will be "no vaccine mandates" if he's elected governor. In an interview with CBS News, the former aAssemblyman said that he would keep other, non-COVID vaccine mandates currently in place for children attending school.
"We have decades upon decades, upon decades of data that they work to keep children safe," Ciattarelli told CBS News. "But what we also have in New Jersey is a religious exemption and a medical exemption. And I support those exemptions, as do Democrats in the Legislature."
Ciattarelli's messaging on COVID has largely focused on nursing home deaths in New Jersey and the political battle over mandates. But he has also made an economic pitch to voters and pledged to bring down the state's high property taxes, asking the crowd in Holmdel, "can anybody say they're better off (than four years ago?)"
"(Property taxes are]) the most punitive tax of all. It affects every individual, whether they own or rent. It affects every business, whether they own or rent," Ciattarelli told CBS News. "I don't want to be a governor of a state that has the highest property tax in the nation."
Murphy spent part of his Thursday at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new innovation, research and medical education hub in New Brunswick. Projects like that, he says, are evidence that New Jersey's economy is on the right path.
"We're the innovation state and when I came into office, it was pretty clear we had not done the stuff you need to do to continue to earn that title," Murphy said. "This is a huge step, among many steps we're taking, and it says, 'You know what? We're back.'"
TOP DEMOCRATIC SURROGATES COMING
For the first time this year, New Jersey voters will have nine days of early in-person voting starting on October 23. Murphy will be getting a boost from top Democrats as early voting gets underway. First Lady Jill Biden is coming to New Jersey on Friday to campaign with the governor and former President Barack Obama will come to the Garden State to mark the first day of early voting.
There are more than a million more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey, but the high-profile visits have raised questions about Democratic enthusiasm.
"We've got to get our team to turn out, and if our team turns up in size, I think that'll be a good result for us," Murphy told CBS News. "The contrast of this race is stark. It's the difference between continuing to move forward and slipping backwards to the bad old days. Folks need to be read into that and understand it and realize what's at stake and then go out, vote."
National Republicans have not planned many visits to New Jersey and Ciattarelli said, "I don't need anybody else to help me win this election."
As Republicans around the country continue to raise questions about the 2020 election, despite no evidence of widespread fraud, and voting processes going forward, both Ciattarelli and Murphy pledged to accept the outcome.
"Elections are fair here in New Jersey, and again, I'm confident in the outcome for Jack Ciattarelli on November 2," Ciattarelli told CBS News. "I'll be the first to congratulate Phil Murphy if he goes the other way. But it's not going to."
"New Jersey's not in any of that 'tinfoil hat' territory that other states in America are," Murphy said. "We've got a great track record, win, lose or draw, of counting every single vote and having a very fair, transparent result."