The next Christie Whitman?

October 17, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Four years ago Christine Todd Whitman made a grand entrance onto the national political scene by upsetting Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, who had made the politically terminal mistake of raising state taxes after promising not to do so.

Republican Whitman won by making her own promise that she would cut state income taxes 30 percent. And once in office, she delivered on that promise, albeit with a little creative fiscal maneuvering.

She became an instant political celebrity, the subject of speculation about whether she might end up on a Republican national ticket.

On the face of it, this is a story that would suggest Ms. Whitman is a safe bet for re-election next month in her campaign against an obscure Democratic challenger. But it ain't necessarily so. She is favored, but by no means a sure thing in a state in which voters can be cantankerously independent.

Ms. Whitman has had her own experience with that phenomenon. In 1990, running as a hopeless-case local official, she came within three percentage points of upsetting then Sen. Bill Bradley when many Democrats were measuring him for the White House. It is a campaign many Jersey politicians are recalling as they weigh the prospect that James McGreevey, a 40-year-old state senator and mayor of Woodbridge, might be this year's Christie Whitman.

Reputation

No one knows why New Jersey voters are so unimpressed with the national reputation of a politician. But opinion polls suggest it is the case here. Ms. Whitman leads Mr. McGreevey by as little as 4 percent in some surveys although she is universally known and he is still a clean slate to many voters.

As Lyn Nofziger, the veteran Republican consultant advising her campaign, puts it, "She may be a bigger celebrity outside the state than she is within the state."

There is also a clear dichotomy between the way Whitman is viewed personally and the way her performance is being judged. Unpublished polls show her approval rating close to 60 percent but her share of the vote still well below 50 -- figures that might make any incumbent uneasy.

Mr. McGreevey and his strategists believe the Republican governor is vulnerable because the credit she may have earned from the income tax reductions has been more than offset by other economic concerns -- skyrocketing property taxes and the nation's highest automobile insurance costs. "People have figured it out," says Karl Struble, a consultant to Mr. McGreevey. "The tax cut was illusionary."

And Mr. McGreevey himself says with mock pride: "For the first time in history, we're not only number one in auto insurance but also number one in property taxes."

There are other variables in the political equation here. Ms. Whitman is well known as a supporter of abortion rights and as governor has refused to accept prohibitions against so-called "partial birth" abortions unless an exception is made for cases in which the health of the mother is threatened.

Conservatives

That is a break from conservative orthodoxy that may cause some rightist Republicans to sit out the election or cast their votes for one of two conservative fringe candidates who will be on the ballot.

Some veterans of New Jersey politics believe that third-party vote might total as much as 5 percent, obviously enough to make the difference if the election is tight.

At this point the outcome is far from clear. Published polls show one-fourth of the electorate still undecided with less than three weeks to go. And the candidates still have six debates on their schedules that will give Democrat McGreevey a chance to introduce himself to the rest of the electorate.

To outsiders, however, the striking thing is that there is still genuine reason for doubt about the result. Christie Whitman may be a bright star in the eyes of the national political community. But she has not yet closed the sale with the folks back home.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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