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Comedian won't run for New Jersey governor as Republican

FILE – In this Nov. 5, 2016, file photo, actor, comedian and radio host Joe Piscopo gestures to the audience before a speech by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Tampa, Fla. Piscopo is giving up on running as a Republican for governor to succeed Chris Christie, but the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member is "more serious" than ever about running as an independent, he said in an interview with The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

FILE – In this Nov. 5, 2016, file photo, actor, comedian and radio host Joe Piscopo gestures to the audience before a speech by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Tampa, Fla. Piscopo is giving up on running as a Republican for governor to succeed Chris Christie, but the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member is "more serious" than ever about running as an independent, he said in an interview with The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

TRENTON, N.J. — A comedian best known for his Frank Sinatra impression on "Saturday Night Live" won't run as a Republican in New Jersey's upcoming governor's race, but Joe Piscopo says he is "more serious than ever" about joining the field as an independent.

A longtime Democrat until recently and a backer of President Donald Trump, Piscopo's potential candidacy to replace Republican Gov. Chris Christie has been a constant question mark in New Jersey, which along with Virginia is one of only two governor's races in the U.S. this year.

The news that the radio host is skipping the Republican primary and leaving the party to become an independent comes ahead of a pending registration deadline and sets him up for a long shot third-party bid.

"I am more serious about this than ever before. We're coming up with initiatives. It's all working out," he said. "I'm very, very excited to have an opportunity to help the people of New Jersey. I'm not being coy. I'm very careful and respectful."

He said he reached the decision because of the pending April 3 deadline to declare in the primary, which would force him to quit his radio job because of rules mandating that candidates get equal time on public airwaves. He also cited the need to set up campaign committees, which he hasn't yet done.

He now faces a June 6 deadline to file as an independent, but says he hasn't decided when he will.

Piscopo, 65, gained fame as a member of the "SNL" cast, impersonating fellow Jersey native Sinatra as well as late-night host David Letterman. He also appeared in films and hosts a political talk radio show in New York and is a spokesman for the Boys and Girls Club.

Piscopo was seen as a potential buoy to Republicans, whose leading candidate is Christie's top deputy, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Christie's approval rating is as low as it's ever been, and Democrats are feeling optimistic in a state that has about 800,000 more Democratic voters than Republicans. Piscopo trailed Guadagno in recent polls of GOP voters, but not by much.

While unaffiliated voters make up the biggest registration category in the state, political experts say that isn't likely to lead to victory.

Not since the 19th century has New Jersey elected anyone other than a top-party candidate. Most recently, former environmental official Chris Daggett ran a strong third-party campaign but finished with about 6 per cent of the vote in 2009.

Independents lack party structure that can help get the vote out and raise money, said Peter Woolley, a politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

"We can say it is well-nigh impossible to win the general election as an independent."

Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, called the effort "nearly insurmountable"

"The fact is that short of an enormously well-funded challenge, it is nearly impossible to gain traction against New Jersey's parties," she said.

If Piscopo runs, he'll join a field that will be winnowed after the June 6 primary. The leading Democratic candidate is Phil Murphy, a former Wall Street executive and Obama administration ambassador. Guadagno has led polls on the GOP side.

He says he would focus his campaign on "property tax, property tax and property tax," citing the perennial issue in a state with the country's highest such levies.

"The message is let's make New Jersey livable again," he said, echoing Trump's "Make America Great Again" mantra. "It's about the people. It all comes down to the over-taxation."

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Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini

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