Senators, governors, and congressmen are calling Thomas H. Kean these days with one question: ``How did you do it?'' Governor Kean, a Republican, did something remarkable a couple of weeks ago. He not only won reelection by the largest margin in modern New Jersey history. He won with strong support from people who usually wouldn't cross the street to shake a Republican governor's hand: blacks, union officials, slum residents.
In fact, Mr. Kean carried every city in the state, often by whopping margins, and won 3 of every 5 black votes.
During an interview at his State House office, Kean protested that there is really nothing very complicated or surprising in what happened here. Yet he's clearly the cat who has swallowed the canary.
After being, in his own words, ``a lonely voice'' in his party, he feels that he has finally proved something to his fellow Republicans, including some of those strategists who work for President Reagan. Namely, ``you'll never get the black vote unless you take the trouble to ask for it.''
The same holds true for votes from union members, the poor, city residents, teacher organizations, Hispanics, and other traditionally Democratic blocs.
At first, Kean might appear to be one of the last politicians to make this kind of breakthrough for the GOP.
The governor is described as a ``genuine aristocrat.'' His family has played a prominent role in New Jersey since before the American Revolution.
His grandfather served in the US Senate; his father in the US House. Kean himself first ran for office in 1967, when he was elected to the state Assembly. He married that same year, and he and his wife, Deborah, have three children, twin 16-year-old sons and a daughter who is 9.
Kean traces his roots back to the first governors of New Jersey [William Livingston] and Massachusetts [Gov. John Winthrop].
He's a distant cousin of former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Perhaps it's these old ties. Perhaps it's his own training in history at Princeton and Columbia. But Kean reaches back to find strength for what he does. He likes to quote Lincoln, Jefferson, Eisenhower, King, and Kennedy. And Ronald Reagan.
``We've been blessed with Ronald Reagan,'' he says. ``There's no other word for it. To have a President . . . with this kind of charisma, with this kind of communicative skills. . . .''
Now, however, it's time to begin thinking about the future, Kean says. It's time to begin looking at what the Republican Party will be after Reagan.
``People are going to want a party that is forward looking. And a party that is forward looking has got to look toward education, toward environmental protection. . . . They've got to be on the forefront of ways to solve those problems.''
In Kean's first term, this philosophy translated into a number of programs that helped propel the governor's popularity ratings well above 80 percent. Major programs have included:
Strong support for education, including a new, statewide minimum starting salary of $18,500 for teachers.
Strong support for environmental cleanup, a necessity in a state with the nation's highest concentration of toxic waste sites.
Economic development, which has helped New Jersey outpace the current US expansion.
Fiscal conservatism, which has led Kean to veto $500 million in spending bills.
Strong support for civil rights, including a decision to remove New Jersey pension funds from investments in South Africa.
The impact has been dramatic. Pollsters who measure public moods found that New Jerseyites' ``pride'' in their state has soared since the 1970s. In Kean's words:
``I think I've contributed to a feeling here . . . that we didn't have any limits in New Jersey. That we really, if we put our mind to it, whether it was an environmental problem, or educational problem, or an economic problem, whatever it was, that we could solve it.
``That has established some pride in a state that had a little bit of an inferiority complex sandwiched here between two great cities [New York and Philadelphia].''
This ``can do'' attitude permeates Kean's governing philosophy. When talking about the people who have most impressed him, people like Theodore Roosevelt, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy, Kean notes:
``They're all optimists. They all had a belief that this country really didn't have many limits. . . .
``Somebody asked me, `Why do you quote from these people so often?' The answer is: There is an optimistic feeling about problem solving and about this country which goes way beyond party or philosophy that all of them share, and it's something that I share very strongly. . . . We can go from greatness to greatness.''
Kean is an avid reader. It's his favorite hobby. He read five books during a recent one-week vacation, including Robert Graves's second volume of ``I, Claudius'' and a book on Oscar Wilde.
His acquaintance with literature and history makes it easy for him to shift back and forth from century to century, looking for ideas and concepts to test his policies.
On his decision to divest the state of South African investments, Kean says:
``You cannot believe what Thomas Jefferson wrote . . . and not come to [that] conclusion.''
He continues: ``Take some of the things [about democracy] that we teach our children and once learned ourselves and say, `Look, if we really mean that, don't you think we're a little off track [in South Africa], because this is what it's all about. This is why we're different from the rest of the world. This is why America is a chosen people, in a sense. I believe that.''
The key to progress, both in New Jersey and in the United States, Kean says, is ``opportunity,'' a sentiment he shares with another rising Republican star, Rep. Jack Kemp of New York.
This has been the key to Kean's urban programs, his education programs, his social programs. He also supports affirmative action, when that means giving businesses run by minorities special access to a portion of government contracts.
Affirmative action is just a way of making the playing field level, Kean says. But he makes one point clear: Affirmative action should not be a device to lower standards. It should be a way to help minorities meet the required standards.
``Once you get that playing field level, then it's up to them. Some of them are going to rise, and some are going to fall.''
While Kean often praises and quotes President Reagan, he doesn't hesitate to take exception. Two immediate areas of interest: education vouchers and prayer in the schools.
The Reagan proposal to give low-income students vouchers to be used at public, private, or religious schools is rapped by Kean. ``It would create chaos, confusion,'' says Kean, and ``it wouldn't help any kids.''
On school prayer, Kean says: ``I just think it's unconstitutional. I don't have any objection to it personally, if you can find a prayer that isn't going to offend somebody. [But] by the time you find a prayer that doesn't offend somebody, you haven't got much left.''
The Reagan White House should be careful about knocking down church-state barriers, says Kean.
``It's a very important barrier. . . . It's got to be a very strict line.''
Then Kean, the student of history, reaches back into America's past once again to put the church-state question into perspective: ``It's one of the things that our Founding Fathers cared most about,'' he recalls. ``They had seen the dangers in the places they came from.''