(CNN) – The three candidates for New Jersey governor squared off on Thursday night in Trenton at the first gubernatorial debate of the general election, a match-up that featured heated exchanges over taxes, the economy and the unusual political topic of mammograms.
Republican Chris Christie wants to allow out-of-state insurers to offer health care plans that can bypass New Jersey's 45 coverage mandates, which he says drive up costs. But Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, has blasted Christie for his proposal with a hard-hitting ad accusing Christie of wanting to drop mandated coverage for breast cancer exams.
Christie called on Corzine to pull the ad and apologize.
"I would not have a plan that would ever prevent any woman who needed a mammogram to get one, the governor knows it, and this is just another example of his shameful campaign," Christie said.
Corzine argued the mandates are essential. "I'd rather stand with the women of New Jersey than with the insurance companies," he responded.
The underdog third party candidate - independent Chris Daggett - also turned in a confident performance that could enhance his profile with voters, a boost that would likely benefit the governor, since polls show Daggett draining support from Christie.
A Monmouth University/Gannett poll released Thursday shows Christie's once significant lead over Corzine is down to three percentage points among likely voters, 43 to 40 percent. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, appears to be losing voters to Daggett, who at eight percent in the latest survey has doubled his support since August.
At one point, Daggett embraced some of the friendly remarks coming his way from his two rivals.
“It sounds like both these two guys might vote for me,” he said, earning laughter from the audience.
It was a light moment in an otherwise tense debate in which Christie tried to put Corzine on the defensive on economic issues and corruption. Corzine also kept Christie his crosshairs, accusing him of having no concrete plans to fix the state's budget problems. He described the Republican's plans as a "fantasy."
"Making tough decisions in a tough environment is what being governor is about," Corzine said. "No plan is not what being a governor is about."
Daggett, too, claimed that Christie has not offered a serious plan to fix the state's $8 billion deficit.
The Republican chose to focus on New Jersey's sky-high tax burden and unappealing business tax climate, which he said was "suffocating" the state economically.
"People are leaving this state in droves," Christie said. "Businesses are leaving in droves and taking the jobs with them. And that's why we've had the worst unemployment rate in 33 years."
Corzine said studies show population has actually grown in New Jersey and that once the recession ends, employment will rebound because his administration has created a pro-growth environment with education policies and the state's transportation network.
The governor also argued that he can't be blamed for New Jersey's tough economic situation.
"Mr. Christie and Mr. Daggett both are pretending that New Jersey is somehow suffering more than the nation or the global community with regard to economics," he said.
Questioned on whether he plans to raise taxes in his second term, Corzine acknowledged economic realities might lead to some tough decisions.
"I don't intend to raise taxes," Corzine said, "but the fact is you have to balance the budget."