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NEWARK, N.J.– In the run for New Jersey governor, an exclusive PIX11 News, NewsNation, Emerson College poll shows incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy with a lead, but Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli within striking distance.

About half of voters surveyed favored re-electing Murphy; with 44% favoring Ciattarelli, a businessman and former assemblyman; and 7% undecided.

The poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 3.9%, shows an even closer race when the undecided voters are allocated. Murphy leads Ciattarelli 52% – 48%.

PIX11 News will host an hour-long forum from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday featuring in depth interviews with both candidates, with special coverage beginning at 6:30pm.

Watch the forum live here.

New Jersey’s off-year race to lead the state, among the hardest hit by COVID, is looked at by some national political analysts as a measure of how tighter safety restrictions on things like masks and vaccines are playing with voters.

Murphy and Ciattarelli have clashed numerous times about mandates on the campaign trail, with Ciattarelli saying he would relax many of Murphy’s restriction.

However, the PIX11 News, NewsNation, Emerson College poll shows COVID issues are not front of mind for New Jersey voters. Among those surveyed about what the top priority for the governor should be, 51% said taxes were the most important issue. Jobs at 16%, and healthcare at 13% were a distant second and third respectively.

During Murphy’s first term he has raised taxes on the wealthy and businesses. Overall, middle- and lower-income New Jerseyans have not seen big increases, but property taxes remain a contentious issue.

PIX11 News will press both candidates on tax issues during the forum.

To the extent that the election is a referendum on how much people like Gov. Murphy, the poll found his favorability at 49% against 47% who look upon him not favorably.

According to the poll, voters also have mixed views about how Murphy responded to the extreme flooding brought by the remnants of Hurricane Ida. Half of those surveyed gave him an A or B, more than 20% gave him a C and 30% gave him a D or F.