WASHINGTON -- Three weeks before election day Christine Wells, a radio advertising saleswoman who lives near Parsippany, N.J., explained why she was deserting Gov. Christine Todd Whitman this year.
''I'm a Republican and all,'' she said, ''but I'm pro-life and she's just not reliable. That's what I hear from my friends at church, that she can't be trusted. I don't want to see her in the White House.''
Voters for whom the abortion rights issue is dominant apparently make up a small minority in New Jersey, as they do elsewhere. But that minority is large enough so that Mrs. Whitman only squeaked through in her re-election campaign when all the conventional indicators pointed to an easy victory.
Mrs. Whitman has been a national political celebrity since she won the governorship by a narrow margin four years ago. The votes had no sooner been counted than she was being mentioned as a potential candidate for a future Republican national ticket. After only a year in office, she was chosen to deliver the Republicans' televised rebuttal to President Clinton's State of the Union address.
But Mrs. Whitman also has a politically defensible record of service in Trenton. She delivered on her original campaign promise to reduce New Jersey's income taxes 30 percent, although it took some shuffling in the bookkeeping -- ordinarily a sure-fire step toward re-election.
And her opponent, a 40-year-old state senator and mayor of Woodbridge named James McGreevey, was so obscure that a poll taken a few days before the election found 48 percent of the voters saying they didn't know enough about him to form an opinion.
The Democratic nominee also operated at a disadvantage in terms of resources. National Republican campaign organizations spent $1.5 million in New Jersey, while the impoverished Democrats provided only token help.
Nonetheless, Mr. McGreevey came within a point of Mrs. Whitman, and two figures in the small print showed why. Voters gave 6 percent of their ballots to two conservative alternative candidates who emphasized the abortion rights issue and specifically Mrs. Whitman's refusal to approve a ban on ''partial birth'' abortions unless an exception were made for cases in which the health of the mother might be endangered.
Secondly, overall voter turnout apparently declined 5 percent to 7 percent from the usual level for gubernatorial elections, suggesting some voters took a walk rather than vote for either Mrs. Whitman or Mr. McGreevey, who also supports abortion rights. The result was Mrs. Whitman winning by a whisker rather than a comfortable margin. This happened despite the fact that Mrs. Whitman ran far better with women voters than most Republicans manage these days.
Mr. McGreevey did have a volatile issue -- anger in the electorate about automobile insurance rates that are the highest in the nation. But more than two-thirds of voters questioned in exit polls said they considered the economy to be in either ''excellent'' or ''good'' condition, ordinarily a finding suggesting strength for incumbents. And the auto insurance issue is a hardy perennial that has never been decisive in a New Jersey election.
The obvious inference to be drawn from the New Jersey returns is that the gulf between the moderate and socially conservative Republicans is one that can cut both ways. We already have seen cases in which conservative Republican candidates can suffer defections, particularly among Republicans and independents in the suburbs of the Northeast. That pattern has become clear in the last two presidential elections. Only last year President Clinton swept the region with runaway margins. Now we have a case of defections from a moderate Republican from the other end of the ideological spectrum.
Just how this division among Republicans might apply to the midterm elections next year is impossible to gauge. Single-issue voters on abortion rights make up fewer than 10 percent on either side of the question. And there are usually other issues with more sting in any local campaign, as well as marked differences in the personal appeal of candidates.
But there are 37 House districts, including 26 held by Republicans, that were carried with less than 51 percent of the vote last year -- in short, districts so hotly contested any measurable defection can make the difference. So the Republicans have sound reason to enjoy their successes in the odd-year elections of 1997, but they also have been given further notice that the abortion rights issue is still a problem.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 11/07/97