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Jewish World Review June 15, 2001 / 25 Sivan, 5761

John H. Fund

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A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey" -- IN a year with few political contests, the Republican primary for governor of New Jersey is a fun fight to watch. Any GOP voter who has ever voted in a primary has found his mailbox stuffed with luridly colored mailings crammed with high-voltage rhetoric accusing Bret Schundler, Bob Franks or both of being either duplicitous or a tax hiker. The joke in political circles is that you better not go on vacation before the June 26 primary or your mailbox will overflow.

The debates between Mr. Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City, and Mr. Franks, the former congressman and last year's Senate nominee, have been equally heated. (The last one airs on C-Span tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern.) On Monday the two candidates met in the studios of WABC, a New York talk-radio station, for an hour-long debate. During the commercial breaks, host Sean Hannity noticed that the two men were "barely talking" to each other. Their silence was so palpable that he brought it up on the air. "This is becoming a very contentious race," he said. "I just sense there is some animosity."

The Republican-controlled Legislature delayed this year's primary by three weeks after Don DiFrancesco--who became acting governor when Christine Whitman left the statehouse for the Environmental Protection Agency--dropped out of the race amid ethics charges. The GOP establishment, long at odds with the conservative Mayor Schundler, recruited Mr. Franks from a lucrative job he had just landed as a Washington lobbyist to replace Mr. DiFrancesco as their candidate. Legislators also allowed Mr. DiFrancesco to transfer much of his campaign money to Mr. Franks.

Ever since then the conventional wisdom has been that Mr. Franks, who last year came within three percentage points of defeating the self-financed candidacy of multimillionaire Democrat Jon Corzine for U.S. Senate, was a prohibitive favorite. He had name recognition left over from his David vs. Goliath race against Mr. Corzine, a moderate eight-year voting record in Congress, and as a former state party chairman the loyalty of "the boys and girls," the 20,000 or so party regulars who derive some or all of their income or prestige from state government.

Mr. Schundler, on the other hand, has long been a thorn in the side of the party establishment, which views him as a windy iconoclast with eccentric conservative ideas. "The Jack Kemp of New Jersey," one county chairman calls him, and he didn't mean it as a compliment.

But recent polls show a tightening race, with the Franks lead falling from some 15 points down to as little as five in a Public Opinion Strategies survey taken for the Schundler campaign. "The momentum and enthusiasm in favor of Schundler is there," says Al Felzenberg, a political scientist from New Jersey now at the Heritage Foundation.

In addition, the backing of the party machinery may not be worth as much in a late June primary, when many voters are at the beach and there is no tradition of turning out a lot of absentee votes. "I don't think the party hacks can fully trust their own people to vote for Franks," says Rick Shaftan, a pollster who has often been critical of Mr. Schundler's abilities as a candidate. "The more they learn about Franks, the less there is to be excited about."

Mr. Shaftan says he also questions Mr. Franks's decision to participate in debates on Mr. Hannity's radio show. "The ratings of that show are big and the audience is conservative," he notes. "All Franks did was allow Schundler to expose his record as not being very conservative. I give Schundler an A-plus for digging into Franks and never letting go." (OpinionJournal readers from outside the New York area may know Mr. Hannity as the conservative co-host of Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" debate show.)

No doubt tonight's debate will be equally contentious and the issue of who is misrepresenting whom is likely to come up. Mr. Franks has claimed in his mailers that property taxes have gone up 79% during Mr. Schundler's eight-year tenure in Jersey City. The New York Times has concluded that such claims have "not stood up to close scrutiny."

On the other hand, the Schundler camp constantly pairs Mr. Franks in photos with Jim Florio, the Democratic governor Ms. Whitman defeated in 1993. As GOP state party chairman at the time of Mr. Florio's infamous 1990 tax increases, Mr. Franks clearly was no Florio friend. A fairer criticism would be that Mr. Franks's current support for allowing voters the right to put initiatives on the ballot is undercut by his failure to support the idea vigorously after the GOP won two-thirds control of the state Legislature in 1991.

Should Mr. Schundler pull off an upset, the new conventional wisdom will no doubt be that such a conservative candidate can't win in the fall against Democrat Jim McGreevey, who almost toppled Ms. Whitman four years ago. But should Mr. Schundler defeat a candidate backed by almost all of his own party's establishment, he will have solidified a reputation as a giant-killer. After all, no one had heard of him before 1992, when he became mayor of a city in which only 6% of voters were Republicans. Mr. Schundler went on to win re-election twice. You can never count out a man with that kind of record.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund