Florio's Formula

October 09, 1993

If Gov. Jim Florio wins re-election in New Jersey this year, politicians throughout the country will scramble to reappraise their own prospects.

If anyone was a sure bet for defeat just a year ago, it was Mr. Florio. He reneged on a promise not to raise taxes quicker than George Bush. Correctly or not, the middle-class residents of Jersey's suburbs thought they had borne the brunt of his whopping $2.8 billion tax package three years ago. He aroused the wrath of the National Rifle Association by pushing through a tough law banning semi-automatic weapons. Republicans seized control of the legislature, thanks to a huge outpouring of angry, anti-Florio voters. His poll numbers hit record lows. Jim Florio was a dead duck, for sure.

No longer. Fast footwork on his part, some trimming of ideological sails, a flair for the campaign trail and image problems for his millionaire Republican opponent have made Mr. Florio a strong candidate with barely a month to go to Election Day. The latest poll gives him a big lead over Republican Christine Todd Whitman. Unless the race turns topsy-turvy in its closing weeks, the political conventional wisdom of the past three years won't look so wise.

Can an incumbent survive imposing a tax increase? Can a politician outrage suburban voters? Can the NRA be politically disarmed? Can a one-time moderate Democrat shift far enough to the right and appeal to blue-collar voters and the suburbanites who think like them? Tune in Nov. 2.

Mr. Florio apparently has succeeded in distracting attention from his tax increase and meddling with public school financing by taking strong stands on combating crime and reforming the welfare system. He invokes his own blue-collar roots and contrasts them with Mrs. Whitman's, scion of one of the state's wealthiest families. She has helped him by some blunders, ironically in one instance by taking a more liberal stance than he did on welfare. The Republican nominee countered with a tax-reduction proposal targeted at the middle class. But upper-income families like hers would benefit even more, so it may boomerang.

If Mr. Florio wins, it will force politicians everywhere, including Maryland, to reevaluate suburban strategies. Playing to what has been perceived as the parochial interests of suburban voters is becoming tricky. Voters respond to a spectrum of issues, and not all of them are as closely tied to their pocketbooks as sometimes assumed. Mr. Florio has found a come-from-behind formula in gun control, suppressing crime and reforming welfare. These are issues without jurisdictional boundaries.

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