New Jersey election funds draw barrel of candidates

If all the candidates for governor of New Jersey got on the state's turnpike at the same time they would create a traffic jam. There are more people running for governor now than at any time in the state's history. Thirteen Democrats and eight Republicans are running in the June 2 party primaries. In addition, 11 independent and minor party candidates hope to get on the general election ballot.

What makes the governorship of what James Madison once called "the barrel state" (because of its shape) suddenly so attractive? It could be New Jersey's new public financing law, which gives candidates $2 for every $1 they raise up to $600,000. In fact, it is generally felt that is the major reason for the bulging field.

While most of the candidates have taken advantage of the public financing law , Joseph Sullivan, a millionaire industrialist vying for the GOP nod, has made public financing a major issue of his campaign. He sees the public financing law as a blatant waste of taxpayer money. Other candidates accuse him of trying to "buy the election" and then doubly offend the electorate by making an issue out of the issue that was supposed to put restraints on "buying" an election.

Many state political observers assert that television time that has been made available to the candidates because of public financing has, with some exceptions, fostered confusion instead of clarifying issues and personalities. An extreme example: Mayor Thomas F. X. smith of Jersey City, running for the Democratic nomination, is airing commercials featuring a talking dog.

Several major New Jersey daily newspapers have not conducted their traditional pre-primary election polling because of the size of the field. But veteran political observers offer several factors short of polls that can serve as a rough guide to the front-runners -- TV advertising, statewide recognition, and the endorsement of outgoing Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, who cannot run for a third term under state law.

On the Democratic side, Newark Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson, former New Jersey State Attorney General John J. Degnan, and US Rep. James Florio seem leading contenders.

Mayor Gibson, who is black and whose name recognition statewide is perhaps greater than that of Mr. Florio, is expected to do well among registered black Democrats. These constitute nearly a quarter of the registered Democrats in a heavily Democratic state. Even if only half the registered blacks vote, Gibson could do extremely well, observers say. Gibson, a mild-mannered, cautious, and articulate man, has been very careful not to offend white voters. And business leaders give him a lot of the credit for Newark's office building "mini-boom."

But a US Justice Department investigation into Gibson's use of campaign funds in 1974 --an investigation that since has been dropped --

Former Attorney General Degnan has Mr. Byrne's endorsement as well as that of the powerful Essex County Democratic machine. Degnan has made a name for himself for being "tough" on Atlantic City casinos. But he also has angered local law enforcement officials and politicians, who charge that he used state police to eclipse the work of local authorities and in turn enhance his own name.

Florio, a "Mr. Clean" of the Democratic campaign, is admired for fighting corruption in a state with a reputation as a hotbed of corruption. He is focusing largely on cleaning up pollution, including the state's tremendous toxic waste problem, and transportation. But many view him as a "holdover" from the "philosophy of big government."

Besides Mr. Sullivan, GOP front-runners include former New Jersey Assembly Speaker Thomas H. Kean, who is loosely referred to as the "Reagan candidate" because US Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York has campaigned for him on a tax cut proposal. Paterson Mayor Lawrence F. Kramer has broad-based local support. But his campaign has been poorly organized until recently, close observers say.

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