N.J.'s Gov. Whitman fights for political life Rising Republican star in tight re-election race

October 26, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HAMILTON, N.J. -- There was a time, not too long ago, when Christie Whitman and Colin L. Powell were hailed as a dream ticket for the Republican Party.

But when Powell popped up at the New Jersey governor's side last week, it seemed more like a rescue mission than a preview of the next presidential campaign.

"I'm delighted that he was able to be here," exclaimed the governor, as she fought her way through a mob of reporters and TV cameras.

Powell, whose popularity remains high, delivered a tacit endorsement of Whitman, who is on the defensive heading into the final days of an unexpectedly close re-election fight.

According to a variety of public and private polls, the 51-year-old incumbent is clinging to a narrow lead -- as small as 4 percentage points in some surveys -- over Jim McGreevey, an ambitious, if little-known, Democrat whose most notable attribute may be that he holds two elective offices: state senator and mayor of suburban Woodbridge (1990 population: 93,000).

McGreevey's attacks have portrayed the wealthy governor as out of touch with the top concerns of New Jersey voters. The contest is so tight the election could well be decided by the support siphoned off by minor candidates running on the Libertarian and Conservative party lines, who could draw up to ++ 10 percent of the vote.

"She led with her chin," says Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University political scientist, by letting her Democratic challenger frame the debate around two problems Whitman admits she failed to solve -- high property tax and car insurance rates. "She's really not run a good campaign."

That wasn't the way it was supposed to go for Whitman, once a rising star of the national Republican Party and still its most prominent female officeholder.

In 1990, Whitman was a virtual unknown when she came within 2 percentage points of beating Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. Three years later, she unseated Democrat James J. Florio on a wave of anti-tax sentiment and became New Jersey's first woman governor.

Because she lacked experience in state government, few gave her a chance of fulfilling her bold campaign pledge to slash state income taxes by 30 percent. "Pie-in-the-sky," scoffed Time magazine, in a typical post-election assessment.

But Whitman delivered -- a year ahead of schedule -- and #F became the model for a new-style politician: the Whitman Republican.

Her formula was a mix of economic conservatism and social moderation. It coupled the tax-cutting fervor of her neighbor Steve Forbes, the publisher and presidential hopeful, with her own support for abortion rights, affirmative action and gay rights.

She campaigned in 14 states on behalf of other Republicans in 1994. Most won, lifting her reputation. (A few lost, like Maryland gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey, whose supporters that year wore "Remember New Jersey" buttons.)

By last year, the governor's name was on the short list of vice presidential prospects. An articulate voice for a party desperate to connect with women, Whitman presided over the 1996 Republican National Convention. Her co-host was another telegenic up-and-comer, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, whose father, the former president, is a family friend.

As she began her re-election run, she could boast that her state had pulled strongly, if belatedly, out of the last recession. New jobs were up, crime was down and welfare rolls had been cut. She had signed the first Megan's Law -- named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl murdered by a convicted child sex offender -- and kept her promise to create boot camps for young, first-time criminals.

With Whitman facing the prospect of modest Democratic opposition, her supporters began looking forward to what they assumed would be her next race -- for president or vice president. Those expectations, which her advisers insist were inflated by an adoring press, haven't made her slide in the polls any easier for Republicans to explain.

"The voters seem to be in sort of a funk," says former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, a good friend. "I think there's a bit of 'What have you done for me lately?' at work here."

Whitman professes to be stumped. "Beats me," she said last week, when the New York Times asked why she hadn't gotten more credit for keeping her promise to slash income taxes.

Some of the reasons emerge from interviews with swing voters in Linden, an old industrial town along the Jersey Turnpike whose oil tank farms are a stereotypical Garden State sight.

Echoing the charges of her Democratic challenger, they blame her for higher local property taxes, even though state aid to local governments has risen during Whitman's term.

"She put some money in one pocket and then took more out of the other," says George Mandle, a lawyer and Reagan Democrat the 1980s. He supported Whitman last time but will vote against her now. "I thought it was time for a change [four years ago], and it doesn't look like it was a change for the better."

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