In endorsing Corzine, a former co-chairman at Goldman Sachs & Co., Byrne said he had "the best chance of winning the general election" and brought "a fresh perspective" to the party. He said the candidacy of Florio, whose record tax increase cost the Democrats control of the statehouse earlier in this decade, would represent a step backward for the party.
Florio said that two weeks ago Byrne had told him he was "philosophically unable to support someone like Corzine because the primary appeared to be little more than an auction."
Byrne had been highly critical of the role Corzine's money is playing in the campaign, and with Florio he called this summer for a spending cap in the Senate contest. Corzine, who has vowed to spend up to $10 million of his estimated $300 million personal worth on the primary alone, rejected the proposal.
Byrne said yesterday that Corzine could not be faulted for "playing by the rules."
Yesterday's developments happened during a Democratic State Committee meeting at which Thomas P. Giblin was reelected state party chairman. The meeting, held in Woodbridge, also became a forum for Corzine and Florio to pitch their candidacies to about 150 party insiders.
Florio, who is also a former assemblyman and congressman, emphasized his experience and said he was the best candidate to keep the retiring Frank R. Lautenberg's Senate seat in Democratic hands.
Florio also tried to distinguish himself from Corzine. He said he opposed Corzine's plan to invest a portion of Social Security money in the stock market and took issue with Corzine's opposition to the death penalty, which Florio supports.
Florio acknowledged having improperly communicated the need for the tax increases earlier in the decade but said he "learned from my mistakes."
Corzine, who has progressed in just six months from a political unknown to a major contender for the Senate seat, promised to fight for traditional Democratic principles and to keep giving political and financial support to other Democratic candidates.
"I'm a team player and I'll work hard for everybody in the party," Corzine said after the meeting.
He added that his approach appeared to be working.
"I have credentials that seem to be getting traction in the marketplace of Democrats around the state," he said. "People are listening to the different perspectives that someone from outside the political process can bring. And people seem interested in someone who can build a political base and be a team player. I am dead serious about helping other Democratic candidates be as successful as I am."