Challenger pitches tax cut


voters skeptical

October 30, 1993|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- There is a conspicuous irony in the campaign for governor of New Jersey this year.

The Republican challenger, Christine Todd Whitman, is suffering backlash against her plan for cutting the state income tax by 30 percent because the electorate is so skeptical of such promises that most voters -- more than 60 percent in one poll -- don't believe she intends to keep her promise.

But one of the reasons they may not believe her is their experience with Democratic Gov. James J. Florio four years ago, when he raised taxes $2.8 billion after assuring voters during the campaign that higher taxes would not be needed.

And now, while Ms. Whitman fights this pervasive skepticism, Mr. Florio is making a virtue of his reversal four years ago by depicting himself, as he put it in a debate the other night, as the governor who made the "hard decisions."

No tax cure-all

What all this suggests, of course, is that promising tax reduction may no longer be the political cure-all it once was. Ms. Whitman herself is well aware of the doubts about politicians and their tax promises.

"It's not just Florio," she said as her campaign bus left Montclair en route to Somerset. "It's what Clinton's done and George Bush, too, with 'read my lips.' "

But strategists in both campaigns here question whether any hard inferences can be drawn from Ms. Whitman's experience because her advocacy of the tax cuts was handled so clumsily. Edward J. Rollins, the Washington consultant now running her campaign, says, "She was put out there by herself" to make the promise without the proper support from leaders, such as former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who could have given her more credibility.

And she clearly suffered, as well, because she proposed the plan -- 10 percent cuts a year for three years -- without providing a detailed response to the question of where she would reduce state spending to cover the $1.5 billion revenue loss her cuts would entail.

The result was that the proposal was widely denounced as conventional cheap politics not just by Mr. Florio -- who repeatedly warns, "She's promising the moon" -- and his surrogates, but also by the press.

"The tax issue made her seem like any other politician," Mr. Rollins said.

The Democratic governor, meanwhile, argues that the voters are ready to make the hard choices, even for higher taxes, if they will gain dividends in the future. Asked what in the campaign has surprised him, he replied: "It didn't surprise me, but it surprised a lot of other people, that they [the voters] were willing to take the long view, to step back and look at this thing."

Since the initial furor over his tax plan, when his approval ratings sank below 20 percent and his political obituary was being written, he says the state has managed three balanced budgets, accumulated a modest rainy day fund and watched the economy begin to improve. It is a picture Ms. Whitman disputes -- pointing out that the balanced budgets are required by the state constitution and citing statistics that belie the picture of economic recovery painted by the incumbent.

But Ms. Whitman concedes that she has not yet effectively convinced voters that the tax cut is "part of a total package" that will create jobs, the issue she finds at the core of the electorate's concern.

Florio leading polls

The conventional wisdom here is that Mr. Florio is likely to win a second term by a comfortable margin. The most recent published public opinion polls show him leading his Republican challenger by 12 to 15 points.

But there are a few anomalies in the poll numbers that argue for some caution. For one thing, although Mr. Florio is leading, the surveys continue to show that 40 percent to 45 percent of the voters have a negative view of him -- figures that suggest that not everyone has forgiven him his tax increases. Ms. Whitman's negatives are only a few points lower, but there are more voters without a firm view on the challenger.

"People don't like him," said Mr. Rollins. "The critical thing [now] is making the sale on her."

As a result, the Republicans now have gone into an end-game strategy of trying to present Ms. Whitman in the most positive light to address weaknesses apparent in the polling data.

One problem is the finding that Mr. Florio enjoys a distinct advantage -- as much as 30 percent in one survey -- among female voters, a reversal of the usual picture when a female candidate runs. Ms. Whitman attributes this to a gender difference.

"Women are harder on women," she said. "They tend to hold them to higher standards."

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