Union, N.J. — The Reagan administration's first popular vote-of confidence -- or no-confidence -- may come in the New Jersey gubernatorial election. Now barely a month away, the contest pits four-term US Rep. James J. Florio, the Democratic candidate against Republican Thomas H. Kean, a wealthy businessman and former state assemblyman from Livingston.
Mr. Florio mentions the link between November's ballot and President Reagan's agenda at every stop on his campaign. Mr. Kean obliquely refers to the link almost as much but says he will win or lose on issues in New Jersey, not in Washington.
But the stream of GOP stalwarts stumping for Kean -- among them Vice-President George Bush and Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan, with President Reagan expected Oct. 15 -- and the candidates' general agreement on other issues such as an crime, has forced "Reaganomics" to center stage.
The contest is one of only two gubernatorial elections this year; the other is in Virginia. Although Florio's pollsters say he is as much as 10 points ahead of Kean, most Garden State politicians and nonpartisan political analysts say the race is too close to call.
"It's very close," says Janice Ballou, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, which conducts the Eagleton Poll. The results a recent Eagleton Poll show Florio with an 8 point lead over Kean. However, about half of Florio's and Kean's supporters said they might change their mind before election day.
"Voters are going to vote for or against me based on what I say and what my opponent says," Kean says. "It's a boost to the campaign to have anyone from Washington here; it gives you visibility; it helps you raise money but . . . it's not a referendum on President Reagan."
But this contention seems to have been contradicted by Mr. Bush, who emphatically declared at a fund-raising luncheon here recently, "We do have a chance to have a real national symbol with the results of the New Jersey race."
William Cromer, Florio's chief pollster, forecasts that the election results will be a major rebuke to Reagan's budget cuts. He insists that a "portion" of the lead Florio has over Kean shows an "anti-Goliath backlash" against support Kean is receiving from Washington.
This support is coming in the form of money as well as people.Both candidates have agreed to accept public campoaign funds. But Kean appears to have a big advantage. The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement commission ruled recently that money spent by the state and national GOP and Democratic committees, if used to back the "party line" as opposed to the candidate, would not apply to candidates spending limits.
Public campaign financing in New Jersey places a $2.1 million spending limits on each candidate. But the wealthy state and national Republican committees are expected to pour millions into backing Kean indirectly, especially via ads on New York and Philadelphia TV stations, which reach New Jersey viewers.
By accepting public financing, observers say Kean avoids two potential pitfalls: Florio can't make an issue of public financing; public financing also largely frees Kean from the process of appealing for contributions, allowing him to spend more time campaigning.
Kean calls for substantial cuts in state business taxes to make New Jersey more competitive with neighboring New York and Pennyslvania. Florio claims the cuts would come at the expense of the average New Jersey resident and could lead to higher property taxes.
Organized labor has joined Florio's camp. But while registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in New Jersey by 44 to 33 percent, blue-collar workers and other normally Democratic residents of Netwark, Camden, and other major cities helped Reagan win his smashing victory here last November