TRENTON — New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli will meet Tuesday in the first of two debates in this year's campaign for governor.

It'll be the first head-to-head matchup between the two and comes with mail-in ballots already in voters' hands.

Murphy is trying to become the first Democrat in 44 years to win reelection and to buck a trend going back to 1985 that has seen the party of the president lose the New Jersey governorship.

Ciattarelli faces headwinds of his own. Down by double digits in publicly available polls, he faces a Democratic registration advantage of 1 million more voters. He's also not a universally known figure in the state.

Murphy's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak is a clear issue in the contest, one in which Ciattarelli is aiming to persuade voters to break with the first-term governor.

New Jersey has had a mixed record during the pandemic. It was an early hot spot, and the death rates at nursing and veterans homes surged. The state, though, has had success in vaccinating residents under Murphy and is among the top fully vaccinated states. In polls, voters have given Murphy decent grades on his overall handling of the outbreak.

The governor has a list of accomplishments to point to, thanks in part to the Democrat-led Legislature: the phased-in $15 minimum wage, legalization of recreational marijuana, expanded pre-K and state-supported community college. He has boosted the state's portion of the public pension and upped aid to schools considerably compared with his Republican predecessor, Chris Christie.

Ciattarelli is a former state Assembly member and the founder of a medical publishing company. He has an accounting background and hinges his campaign around affordability, arguing New Jersey's taxes are too high. His plan for reducing them is to overhaul the state's funding formula for K-12 education, but he hasn't detailed how he would achieve that.

National politics has also shadowed the contest.

Murphy contends a GOP victory would lead to rolling back New Jersey's strict gun laws and endangering funding for women's services, including abortion. Praising former President Donald Trump's policies worked for Ciattarelli in the GOP primary, but it's not something he focuses on during the general election, in which independent and Democratic votes are up for grabs.

New Jersey will have early in-person voting from Oct. 23-31. Election Day is Nov. 2.

The debate is being produced by New York and Philadelphia ABC affiliates, along with Twitter, Univision, WBGO radio, and Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.

It will be broadcast live on TV and radio and will be available online afterward on and Rutgers' site.

The second debate will be Oct. 12.

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