Economy the Key Issue In Connecticut Contest

Independent Weicker still leads the race, but is slipping in the polls

WHILE two young men tried to jump-start a car on a seedy downtown street, members of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council meeting at a nearby hotel tried to figure out which gubernatorial candidate would best jolt new life into Connecticut's economy. Independent candidate Lowell Weicker, Democratic candidate Rep. Bruce Morrison, and Republican candidate for lieutenant governor Bob Jaekle gave their views on crime, substance abuse, and the local economy at a local breakfast forum. Mr. Jaekle was standing in for Rep. John Rowland, the Republican candidate, who stayed in Washington because of the budget crisis.

What the three talked about most at that forum, as well as in a previous televised debate, was the economy. Connecticut, like all of New England, is in the doldrums. Two years ago the state had a ``rainy-day fund'' of $400 million. Today, it has a $400 million deficit. Voters are fending off the idea of a personal income tax. The state already has some of the highest corporate and sales taxes in the nation.

These factors, say analysts, have thrown the traditional opposition between Republicans and Democrats out the window. Both parties are split between traditional and change-oriented factions. And a third-party candidate, hoping to draw from both sides, has muscled in.

Mr. Morrison and Mr. Rowland are both considered hard-working, steady United States representatives who aren't well known outside their districts. Mr. Weicker, on the other hand, served three terms as a Republican in the Senate and one in the House, and has far better name recognition. Many feel this race pivots on him.

Early on, it looked as if the Republicans might be able to take the seat for the first time since 1974. (Incumbent Gov. William O'Neill (D) dropped out of the race early on.)

But when Weicker suddenly entered the race in March, everything changed. From the start, Weicker has led in the polls. The latest Hartford Courant-Institute for Social Inquiry poll, puts Weicker at 35 percent (down from 49 percent in March), followed by Rowland's 21 percent and Morrison's 18 percent.

``The familiarity of the other candidates has increased enough to raise doubts about Weicker but that's not yet translated into a decision that one of them would be better,'' says G. Donald Ferree, associate director of the Institute for Social Inquiry and director of the University of Connecticut poll.

Rowland is only 33, but his three terms in the House and three in the state legislature give him the experience of a much more seasoned politician. He's the only candidate who's come out clearly against the income tax. Focusing on the economy, his platform includes a detailed plan to cut $300 million from state spending and renegotiate contracts with state workers.

``Rowland is waging an effective campaign,'' says Prof. James Dull, political science chairman, University of New Haven. ``His program is conservative, but clear: cut government, no taxes. His campaign received a blow when President Bush, who was scheduled to speak at a Rowland fund-raiser last week, canceled because of budget negotiations.

``Rowland has been issue-specific ... on controversial issues,'' says Richard Foley, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. ``They may be pretty hard-nosed positions but he's finding resonance in the voting population.''

Morrison, who presents himself as a competent manager, says what's important is for the state ``to use its mechanism to pump credit into the economy.'' But he came off sounding conspicuously Republican when he said the solution to overcrowded prisons was not to ``throw money at the problem.''

Morrison is in a difficult position, says Professor Dull. With voters in a no-tax, anti-incumbent mood, he has to distance himself from traditional Democratic themes. At the same time he can't stray to far or lose the support of party diehards.

Of the three candidates, Morrison has run the most negative campaign. During a recent televised debate, he commented on Rowland's youth and questioned whether voters would really go for someone who was ``10 years younger than Dan Quayle,'' a comment that drew catcalls. And at the breakfast, he called Weicker the ``king of the expansive phrase.''

At the breakfast, Weicker did talk in broad, Kennedyesque terms rather than specifics. But he was specific on the economy: He would make life easier for corporations by easing the corporate tax and giving various tax credits. And he says that there would be ``no long lines of party faithful to with which to reward positions after the election.''

Weicker, says Dull, ``is admired and respected in political circles. He presents himself as independent of bosses. Whether he is or not is another matter. There is an image of him being above the fray.''

Living up to the label of maverick, he's been on the liberal side of a Republican Party that he infuriated by being critical of former President Nixon during Watergate. Weicker narrowly missed reelection in 1986 when the state Republican Party mounted a large campaign against him. Knowing that the party would not nominate him in this race, he created his own party, The Connecticut Party, to get his name on the ballot, and ran as an independent.

``The maverick image is not the kind of governor that people want,'' says B. J. Cooper, communications director for the Republican National Committee. ``That may play as a legislator but when you have to build coalitions and get programs through, it's a different story.''

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