THREE years ago a Republican political unknown named Christine
Todd Whitman came within 2 percentage points of one of the biggest
political upsets in New Jersey history.
After a number of prominent Republicans declined to run, Ms.
Whitman took on supposedly unbeatable United States Senator Bill
Bradley and fell short of victory by just 59,000 votes. Citizens
angered by a $2.8 billion tax increase instituted by Democratic
Gov. James Florio vented their displeasure at fellow Democrat
Now Ms. Whitman is getting a direct shot at Mr. Florio in a
gubernatorial race that has focused the national political
spotlight on New Jersey. The race is being closely watched because
in this year following the presidential election, New Jersey is one
of only two states (Virginia is the other) to hold gubernatorial
Florio has closely aligned himself with President Clinton, who
has expressed strong support for the Democratic leader. The
governor said he made the tough choice of raising the state taxes
to tackle New Jersey's economic problems, just as President Clinton
is making tough economic choices to get America back on track.
It is a strategy whose selling power may depend on the strength
of the national economy come November, says Steven Salmore, a GOP
strategist and professor at Rutgers University.
"If the economy is doing well, then Mr. Clinton's support will
rise and that might energize Democratic voters to vote for Florio,"
Mr. Salmore says.
High unemployment rate
Salmore says New Jersey's current unemployment rate of 7.4
percent, the highest among Northeast industrial states, is not a
good omen for Florio.Polls have his approval rating hovering
between 30 and 40 percent.
There is also concern over the impact of federal investigations
into state municipal bond dealings that caused Florio's chief of
staff to resign recently.
Still, Republicans are not counting Florio out. Though he rammed
his tax package through the legislature with little discussion, he
has spent much of the last two years doing fence mending by meeting
with voters. Florio also has hired James Carville, the political
consultant credited with engineering Clinton's presidential
victory, as his political adviser. "It's going to a close race, but
we can win it," Mr. Carville says.
Carville said that Florio's campaign strategy will portray
Whitman as a wealthy aristocrat incapable of understanding the
struggles of the middle class.
Florio dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to join the
Navy, but later earned a law degree and built his own political
machine as a state senator and US House member. …