MADISON, N.J. — AS a boy, Tom Kean says his father taught him that going into politics was a noble cause.
``He said that entering into government service was the highest form of calling,'' recalled Mr. Kean in an interview at Drew University, where the former governor serves as president.
Kean comes from a political family. His father was a congressman; his grandfather and great-uncle, United States senators. And Tom Kean was the most popular GOP governor in New Jersey history. A moderate, he won 69 percent of the vote in his 1985 reelection bid. (State law limits governors to two terms.)
But for this Kean, politics is on hold - at least for now.
National Republican leaders were urging him to run next year for Democrat Frank Lautenberg's US Senate seat. And a poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee has even given Kean good news about a possible run: It showed him beating Mr. Lautenberg.
But last month, citing ``personal obligations,'' Kean took himself out of the running. In an interview, he talks about another issue: whether he could have made a difference in the Senate.
In the Senate, he would have been ``one of 100 senators,'' he says. But ``state government touches people's lives each day.''
He cites cleanup of the state's polluted coastline as one of his greatest achievements as governor. But, he says, he also took pleasure in helping citizens through the maze of state bureaucracy.
Kean recalls a 10-year-old boy who wrote him because the state Division of Environmental Protection was trying to take away his pet raccoon.
``I remember the raccoon was named Jerry Cooney,'' he says. ``Environmental officials told me they were just following the law. Raccoons were not allowed as pets. I told them: `I'm the governor, and you're not going to take away that boy's raccoon.' ''
Kean says every Christmas he still receives a thank-you card from the boy.
Kean says his good memories as governor and the voters' positive feelings about him seem far different from today's meaner-spirited world of politics. Today, he says, voters seem ``disgusted'' with politicians and today's modus operandi to get elected - the TV attack ad. He says negative ads don't do anything for candidate credibility. ``These days, that's how you win,'' he says. ``When I was running for governor, I never used a single attack ad. They're out to destroy you, to destroy your integrity.''
He cites the present New Jersey gubernatorial race between Gov. James Florio (D) and Republican challenger Christine Todd Whitman as a prime example of a campaign dominated by particularly nasty attack ads instead of concentration on issues.
Kean was sharply critical of Florio media strategist James Carville, who helped elect President Clinton, because he views Mr. Carville as a chief proponent of the attack ad. He said every TV ad Mr. Florio has run has been such an ad. But he admits that Ms. Whitman hasn't done much better: ``She's only run one nonattack ad.''