A week after he told a House committee he had no knowledge of how or if the brokerage firm he ran until last month had lost more than a billion dollars in customer money, Jon S. Corzine, the disgraced former CEO of MF Global, suddenly found himself the frontrunner in the Republican presidential race.


 

A week after he told a House committee he had no knowledge of how or if the brokerage firm he ran until last month had lost more than a billion dollars in customer money, Jon S. Corzine, the disgraced former CEO of MF Global, suddenly found himself the frontrunner in the Republican presidential race.


Mr. Corzine — who has not formally entered the GOP race and is a Democrat and a supporter of President Obama — is suddenly scrambling to set up a viable ground organization in Iowa and New Hampshire just ahead of the voting in those states.


With his candidacy on the rise, Mr. Corzine opened a three-day campaign visit to South Carolina and warned Republicans to be suspicious of candidates who “think they can remember everything.”


“That’s not what I see out of voters and I don’t think that’s what they expect to see out of us,” the fledgling Republican candidate said as he shook hands with supporters whose names, they were assured, would not be committed to Mr. Corzine’s memory.


It was a fresh glimpse into the sharpening tenor of the nominating fight as the first round of voting begins in less than three weeks.


Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who are now trailing Mr. Corzine in Iowa and New Hampshire, each released statements saying they had forgotten more than Mr. Corzine had ever remembered, and described the former New Jersey senator’s display of forgetfulness before the House Agriculture Committee last week as “lacking vision.”


Mr. Gingrich went on to call Mr. Corzine “an invented candidate” and Restore Our Future, an independent political group supporting Mitt Romney, released a 30-second commercial extolling Mr. Romney’s own dubious business dealings and candid lack of recall while offering to bet $10,000 that Mr. Corzine would be unable to produce the first names of all of Mr. Romney’s sons and vacation homes.


But Republican voters seemed enthralled with the new frontrunner. They said they liked his lack of ties to the party, calling him the only true outsider in the GOP race. They praised Mr. Corzine for staying the course with his trading practices despite what had happened in 2008 and said that the whereabouts of the missing $1.2 billion of customer money at MF Global was nobody’s business but Mr. Corzine’s, accusing the federal government of overreach in trying to force the former CEO to divulge where the cash had gone.


Mr. Corzine, a one-time senator from New Jersey who not long ago was reeling personally and professionally after losing a re-election run for the governor’s office, seemed energized by his unexpected rise in the polls for a political office he had not sought and in a party he did not belong to.


“It tells me that these voters aren’t looking for the usual candidate with the usual message,” said Mr. Corzine as he sped along a sprawling Interstate, ignoring directions from his vehicle’s GPS and completing trades on his BlackBerry.


“I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate,” Mr. Corzine said while running a slow-moving camper off the road, “I just claim, to the best of my knowledge, to be the best of whoever it is out there who I am running against.”


Mr. Corzine told reporters that he was “stunned” when he learned late Monday that he had become the frontrunner in the Republican presidential race, a discovery that has complicated the strategies of other Republican campaigns as well as Mr. Obama’s own run for re-election.


The former senator insisted that he has always tried to “do the right thing” and was at a loss to explain how he had suddenly become the hope of conservative voters.


“I never intended to run as a Republican or for president,” said Mr. Corzine. “I know I had no intention to ever authorize this. I know what my intentions were.” Mr. Corzine has not been accused of any wrongdoing by Democrats or Republicans who are still trying to figure out what happened.


Mr. Corzine did not rule out possible wrongdoing in his sudden rise in the GOP ranks, saying that in theory, voters may have misinterpreted his words. But now that he was out front in the race, Mr. Corzine said he felt an obligation to follow through with the wishes of his constituents.


Considering the circumstances, Mr. Corzine said, many people in his situation would almost certainly invoke their constitutional right to remain silent, to stay on the sidelines — a fundamental right, he noted, that exists for the purpose of protecting the innocent.


“Nonetheless,” he told reporters at a campaign stop in South Carolina, “I believe it is appropriate that I attempt to respond to yours and my forgetfulness before it is too late.”


Philip Maddocks can be reached at pmaddocks@wickedlocal.com.