TRENTON, N.J. -- As the candidates lined up at the College of New Jersey last Thursday night, the final formal debate in the campaign for governor seemed a mismatch. Republican Brett Schundler is a tall, handsome, charismatic reformer pouring out new ideas. Democrat Jim McGreevey is a pint-sized career politician who never varies the monotonous party mantra.
In the actual debate, however, McGreevey was a narrow winner on points. Hardly an engaging personality, he robotically repeated Democratic wedge issues: assailing Schundler for being pro-life, pro-gun and pro-school choice. Schundler, called "unprogrammable" by associates, wandered a little. Disdaining advice from aides to stick to pounding for tax cuts and against tax increases, he went on the defensive responding to McGreevey's massive television ad attack on gun control.
The debate was a microcosm of the campaign, where polls show McGreevey ahead by some 10 points in his second try for governor. How can this uninspiring small town mayor (Woodbridge, N.J.) and ex-state legislator run ahead of the innovative three-term mayor of overwhelmingly Democratic Jersey City? While the conventional wisdom is that Schundler is too conservative for New Jersey, he could sue for non-support by Republicans in the state and in Washington.
Schundler, a rare Republican who attracts non-white voters, ought to be treated like a treasure by the GOP. Yet, Republican Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco not only has refused to endorse him but also tries to undermine him. It took three months of tortuous negotiations to get former Gov. Christie Whitman, now federal Environmental Protection Administrator, to come back to New Jersey and publicly endorse Schundler (after suggesting in July that his views are not "compatible" with Jerseyans). Even more surprising is President Bush's passivity.
The unsatisfying explanation for the president's absence from this race and also the Virginia campaign for governor: staying above politics during national crisis. "You can bet that Bill Clinton would be here if he were president," state Republican co-chairman Dick Kamin, a Schundler man, told me. White House apathy raises unsubstantiated suspicions of influence by DiFrancesco, who was the state's first Republican to support George W. Bush for president and campaigned for him in New Hampshire.
Donnie DiFrancesco and Bret Schundler once were friends, but the Acting Governor never forgave Schundler for raising ethical questions that forced him out of the race for governor. "He should endorse Bret Schundler," State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, the DiFrancesco-selected state chairman, told me. "But too much is being made of it." Apart from not endorsing, however, DiFrancesco has urged prominent Republicans -- including Connecticut Gov. John Rowland -- not to help Schundler.
New Jersey politicians, who, like DiFrancesco mix business and politics to their own enrichment, see Schundler as a blue nose from another culture. A practical political consideration for Republican legislators is their support from the New Jersey Education Assn. They would not relish a Republican governor, supporting parental school choice and breaking the hold of the teachers union.
One week before the election, a few signs of hope for Schundler are visible. In Thursday's debate, McGreevey indicated vulnerability on the tax issue by saying for the first time: "I'm committed to not raising taxes" (with Schundler responding that "they have to raise more taxes" to support McGreevey's spending). Polls are close enough to raise Democratic fears of low voter turnout, particularly among African-Americans. If Schundler can carry his black and Asian voters in his Hudson County base, McGreevey could be in trouble.
There also are signs of Washington awakening. Republican National Chairman Jim Gilmore turned up for the Thursday debate, hinting another $1 million might be forthcoming for pro-Schundler television ads. Presidential political adviser Karl Rove might come up for Monday night's Schundler fund-raiser -- not George W. Bush, to be sure, but a sign that the president cares.
He ought to. The stakes are greater than generally imagined in Trenton and Washington. In dumping annoying outsider Schundler, Republican insiders here may lose control of the state Senate and perhaps even the Assembly. While White House sources talk about the president not campaigning for a "loser," he may discover that letting Brett Schundler go down the drain is the precursor of Republican disaster in 2002.