- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

NEW YORK — New Jersey Republicans go to the polls in a week from today to decide whether a centrist or conservative candidate will be their partys nominee for governor in the fall general election.

The Republican primary election pits a middle-of-the-road former congressman, Bob Franks, against a conservative, Jersey City Mayor Bret D. Schundler. It is one of two gubernatorial contests in this off-election year and arrives on the heels of a series of convulsions within the state Republican Party that are certain to affect the outcome.

Independent polls released in early May showed Mr. Franks with a 2-to-l lead over Mr. Schundler 46 percent to 24 percent but that lead is thought to have dwindled to just an edge. Both campaigns report their own polls show the gap has closed to single digits.

Like most primaries, the election is expected to draw the traditionally small but faithful party supporters. Mr. Franks has an advantage with tremendous county support; at least 20 of the 21 county leaders and virtually the entire party apparatus are united behind him. But seasoned political insiders acknowledge that in a primary it is the more committed, conservative voter who is likely to turn out, and that is why Mr. Schundler has apparently narrowed the gap.

Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy at Rutgers University, said this is the first time in memory a well-financed ideological challenger has run against just one other Republican candidate.

"This is a straight test between a conservative and a moderate, so it´s harder to figure out what´s going on," said Mr. Zukin.

With both houses of the state Legislature up for re-election and redistricting favoring the Democrats, the Republican establishment wants a centrist who does not oppose abortion at the head of the ticket, not Mr. Schundler, who is pro-life and avidly in support of school vouchers. Moreover, party officials contend that Mr. Franks is the man who can defeat the probable Democratic opponent, James. E. McGreevey, mayor of Woodbridge.

Mr. McGreevey, 43, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, is a former state senator who came within 27,000 votes of defeating former Republican Gov. Christie Whitman in 1997. Since that time he has cut a swath through the state, building grass-roots support, on a nonstop campaign.

Republicans have controlled the State House for almost a decade in New Jersey, but the state party has been wracked by calamity ever since Mrs. Whitman left her post to become Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Bush administration.

Republican state Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco, who replaced her as acting governor (New Jersey is the only state that does not have a lieutenant governor), entered the governor´s race in April and then withdrew after reports of financial improprieties in his business dealings. The Republican-controlled legislature postponed the primary — originally scheduled for June 5 — for three weeks, thus allowing Mr. Franks to enter the race after Mr. DiFrancesco´s exit. Mr. Schundler went to court to block the delay but lost.

Meanwhile, a scandal over racial profiling by the Whitman administration has drawn publicity throughout the country and only adds to the picture of a party under siege.

Hovering over the race is intense speculation that the federal inquiry into Sen. Robert G. Torricelli´s financial dealings could force the New Jersey Democrat to resign. If he did so before January, goes this scenario, then Mr. DiFrancesco would appoint a Republican, thus shifting the balance in the U.S. Senate to a one-vote advantage for the GOP.

Heated arguments have been waged via debate, direct mailings and television ads over the campaign´s central issue: tax reduction. Mr. Franks, who often refers to himself in the third person, has begun to look strident, if not petty, in the view of some political observers. Specifically, they point to his aggressive performance in the second of two debates last week as a sign that he may be in trouble.

Mr. Schundler, 43, and Mr. Franks, 50, lost no time in calling each other liars. Saying that as a congressman and former state legislator he is a proven tax-cutter, Mr. Franks accused his opponent of raising property taxes in Jersey City by 70 percent since 1994. However, Office of Legislative Services puts the figure at 9 percent since Mr. Schundler became mayor in 1992.

Painting his opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal, Mr. Schundler suggested that Mr. Franks is a career politician trying to pose as an outsider.

Referring to his vain attempt to defeat Democrat Jon Corzine in last year´s senatorial race, Mr. Franks said in the debate: "Last year I ran against an opponent who would spend anything to get elected. This year I appear to be running against someone who will say anything to get elected."

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