Sunday, November 11, 2001

The biggest disappointment for Republicans in last Tuesday’s election was the defeat of Bret Schundler for governor of New Jersey. The Wall Street Journal has been lauding him for years, not only as the savior of New Jersey, but possibly of the conservative wing of the GOP. Yet, Mr. Schundler lost to Democrat Jim McGreevey.

Conservative Republicans who supported Mr. Schundler think they know why. Morris County Assemblyman Michael Carroll told me Mr. Schundler “broke the cardinal rule of politics: he who explains, loses. McGreevey made Schundler the issue. He was so focused on the evil he said Schundler would do that he didn’t have to talk about what he would do.” Mr. Carroll says Mr. McGreevey was so programmed even his facial expressions were focus-grouped and that his win was a victory of style over substance.

Mayor Steve Lonegan, of the town of Bogota, believes Mr. Schundler’s loss was “a referendum on eight years of the liberal Republican administration” of former New Jersey Gov. (now Environmental Protection Agency Administrator) Christie Todd Whitman. “Schundler failed to adequately convey to voters that he would be different from Whitman,” said Mr. Lonegan.

Other New Jersey Republicans complained that help from the Republican National Committee came too late. They believe the Republican hierarchy was miffed that Mr. Schundler beat their more “moderate” establishment candidate.

Not so, Republican National Committee Chairman and Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore told me. “Schundler called to say thanks for the amount of party and independent financial support he was given,” said Mr. Gilmore.

New Jersey political analyst Rick Shaftan believes the reason Mr. Schundler lost (gaining the same 42 percent vote total that President Bush won last year) is that he tried to moderate his strong conservative image, embracing the “compassionate conservative” label and turning off white male Catholic suburban voters. Mr. Shaftan says a Republican cannot win in New Jersey without that vote, which is pro-life and pro-gun ownership. He says Mr. Schundler wasted his time trying to attract black urban voters who, as always, voted for the Democrat.

Mr. Shaftan’s message to state and national Republicans is, “Stop trying to reinvent the wheel and [instead] win big in the suburbs. Forget about the cities, the black vote and the Jewish liberals. Worry about energizing the base and they will turn out in big numbers and provide the statewide majorities no New Jersey Republican has won since George Bush received 55 percent of Garden State votes against Michael Dukakis in 1988.” That was the race directed by the late Lee Atwater whose strategy followed Mr. Shaftan’s line.

In the Virginia governorship race, which saw Republican Mark Earley lose to Mark Warner, who underwent a liberal-to-moderate conservative image transplant, Gov. Gilmore offered this analysis: “The Democrats ran as Republicans, rejecting the positions of the national Democratic Party.”

The mayor’s race in New York City was a surprise only to the extent that political neophyte Michael Bloomberg rallied from a huge deficit in the polls to pull even by Election Day. Mr. Bloomberg won by about 30,000 votes. That both Mr. Bloomberg and Democrat Mark Green are liberals in a predominately liberal city offers no tea leaves for either national party.

President Bush’s decision not to campaign in person and instead send letters and do radio commercials on behalf of Republican candidates kept him from being blamed for Republican losses in New Jersey and Virginia (though in Virginia, Republicans added to their majority in the legislature, which means they will have the power to stop any legislation they don’t like).

The mostly hands-off strategy by the president won’t hurt him now, but if he wants to maintain the Republican majority in the House and get it back in the Senate, he will have to take off the gloves and campaign long and hard for Republicans, sharpening the differences between the parties and candidates. Hugging your political opponents and trying to make them like you is OK in a shooting war. But in political warfare, it’s a strategy for defeat. Ask Bret Schundler.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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