Christie Whitman: One-Hit Wonder?

N.J. governor soared with tax cut, but voters seek encore

In less than four years, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman grew from virtual unknown to national Republican icon thanks to a simple formula: She made a promise and kept it.

In 1994, her pledge to cut income taxes by 30 percent lifted her to victory over incumbent Jim Florio. She even made good on the promise a year ahead of schedule - saving families that earn $62,000 about $238 a year.

But there's a growing feeling in the Garden State that unless Mrs. Whitman can convince voters she's been successful in other areas, such as education and the environment, she risks becoming a one-hit, tax-cutting wonder.

Still, she's very popular: Two recent polls found she would be reelected if voters chose now.

This year, New Jersey and Virginia are the only states hosting gubernatorial races. So many are looking to see if the woman who spawned a new national brand of socially moderate, fiscally conservative politicians - "Christie Whitman Republicans" - will keep her top spot and maintain the momentum that could propel her toward national office as early as 2000.

Whitman, for one, says that the credibility she gained from keeping her tax-cut promise will hold her in good stead.

"As far as the people were concerned, it gave them a level of confidence: When I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it," she says in an interview.

Yet Whitman also finds herself in the odd position of touting her one, big-ticket achievement - the tax cut - while at the same time moving beyond it.

To show she can do more than cut taxes, Whitman plans to focus on her other achievements: welfare reform, core-curriculum standards, an environmental "green plan," and inner-city programs.

"What we've proven here is that you can have smaller and smarter government, that you can be leaner and still provide essential services," she says.

Critics begin circling

But her opponents are starting to attack Whitman on a wide range of topics. On the all-important tax plan, they claim Whitman gained national acclaim for something that hurt New Jersey taxpayers.

Last week, a poll found 56 percent of voters blame the income- tax cut for a rise in property taxes.

Her first term hasn't been without controversies. For example, Whitman remains tangled in a nagging school-funding crisis.

Under court order to eliminate inequities between rich and poor districts, she submitted a new funding plan in December, but was sued by the nonprofit Education Law Center, which claims her plan harms low-income districts.

Other critics say Whitman will mortgage the state's future with a new bond plan. New Jersey would cover a $750 million budget shortfall next year by becoming the first state in the nation to sell bonds to cover pension-fund costs. Even some New York bond-rating analysts are dubious about the long-term impact of Whitman's plan.

"Christie Whitman is the candidate of the political experts," says Congressman Robert Andrews, a Democrat headed for the June gubernatorial primary. "But the people back home in the shopping malls and the diners aren't particularly enamored of her."

She has also been accused of watering down environmental regulations to lure new firms to the state. And she recently has come under attack for agreeing to spend $220 million on a new highway tunnel in Atlantic City, in a deal with casino developer Steve Wynn.

Still, many factors point to continued success. Whitman maintains a strong lead over her less well-known rivals. The state is healthy. The tax cut, Whitman says, created 177,000 new jobs. Unemployment dipped to 5.5 percent in February - the lowest level in six years, according to official stats.

Is she Reagan-esqe?

Whitman may not need an encore, some observers say, because she is someone who can rely on her personality to get reelected.

"Whitman is one of these figures, like Eisenhower and Reagan, who've had successful first terms but were judged almost separately from the policies they espoused," says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Mr. Baker says Whitman's true strength is that she represents something stylish and classy in a state considered - by itself and others - mostly blue collar and working class.

"She's likable, and one can never underestimate the likability factor," he says.

Like other tax-cutting Republican governors in the Northeast - George Pataki in New York, John Rowland in Connecticut, and Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania - her national likability remains high.

She gave the Republican rebuttal to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union speech. She was short-listed for Bob Dole's vice-presidential pick. Vanity Fair, People, and The New York Times Magazine have run glowing profiles.

But in her home state - where voters say they like her, but they're not sure why - Whitman has begun battling the one-hit wonder status.

"If you're going to be known for one thing, that's not a bad thing," says former Congressman Richard Zimmer, one of the Christie Whitman Republicans. "But the voters don't know much about her other than that," Zimmer says. "So, her challenge is to educate the public about who she is."

More important, he says, she proved you can trust a politician. "She's that rare, unambiguous politician who made a commitment to the voters and kept it."

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