UNTIL recently, New Jersey's ailing economy and Democratic incumbent Gov. Jim Florio's record were expected to be the main issues in the 1993 Garden State gubernatorial race.
That was before the two GOP candidates surprised everyone by putting Zoe Baird cards on the table. Ms. Baird withdrew her candidacy for United States attorney general amid a storm of protest over her hiring of illegal aliens to provide child care.
Within the last two weeks, both Christine Todd Whitman and W. Cary Edwards, the only declared GOP rivals for Governor Florio's job, disclosed that they also had hired illegal aliens for child care and housekeeping chores and had not paid the required taxes. Both have since apologized and paid up.
William Ulrey, executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee, concedes that the coincidence of the hiring of illegals by both candidates is "amazing," he says. "It hurts - there's no doubt about it - but it's not a killer issue," he insists.
The confessions bother blue-collar workers especially. They view the hirings as lost jobs for out-of-work citizens and another sign that the rich sometimes see themselves as above the law.
Yet Prof. Jo Rennee Formicola, chairman of the political science department at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., says the issue will be only one of many and that the candidates were wise to speak up.
Mrs. Whitman, a liberal Republican who almost won a US Senate seat two years ago, and Mr. Edwards, a former state attorney general, will face each other in a June 8 primary. Any other candidates must file by April.
According to an Asbury Park (N.J.) Press poll taken before the disclosures were made earlier this month, Whitman was running 6 points ahead of Florio in a one-on-one race, while Edwards had a 1-point edge over the incumbent governor.
Florio has been a controversial governor. During his campaign four years ago, he said he saw no need to raise taxes. Yet, in office, he pushed through the Democratic-dominated Legislature a record-high $2.8 billion tax hike. He then moved to channel most school aid to poorer districts. "Impeach Florio" bumper stickers began to appear. By fall 1991, voters put enough Republicans in the Legislature to override his vetoes.
"Florio was extremely unpopular after his first year in office ... but he seems to have recovered a little," says Philip Mundo, a political scientist at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "It would be premature to count him out ... though he faces very much an uphill battle. If the Republicans come up with a strong candidate, he'll be the underdog."
As part of his new budget announced in January, Florio has proposed a world center for environmental technology and a $1 billion capital-improvement program, moves that GOP legislators have been reluctant to challenge. If he has no Democratic primary opponent, he may be able to use the next few months to further develop those initiatives and shore up his position. James Carville, the former manager of President Clinton's campaign, is expected to begin work on Florio's campaign this month.
"The November election is going to be a report card on Jim Florio, and the public is still giving him C's, D's, and F's," says Stephen Salmore, a political science professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics and a Republican consultant. He says he thinks the governor will have little choice but to conduct a negative campaign.
Though New Jersey used to be Democratic, experts say the suburban state has been leaning toward the Republican party since 1964. Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 3, the state's many independent voters are likely to cast the deciding ballots in the election.