New Jersey's Florio Keeps Surprise Lead Over GOP

The nation's only governor's races this year - in Virginia and New Jersey - are seeing plenty of mudslinging as Election Day approaches. The elections, which are raising such issues as religion, gun control, and taxes, may presage next year's political landscape.

PRESIDENT Clinton likes to ask, ``How's my friend, Jim, doing?''

The answer is that New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio (D) is trying to maintain his lead with only days left in a close contest with Republican challenger Christine Todd Whitman.

``The polls indicate whoever wins, it should be fairly close,'' says Stephen Salmore, a political-science professor at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University and a Republican consultant.

Results will be watched nationally because of keen interest at the White House in maintaining the Democrat's hold on the top state spot. Cabinet officials have found many reasons to visit the Garden State recently. Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Teaneck to talk about health-care reform. And Mr. Clinton visited a New Brunswick hospital with the governor Oct. 8 to discuss the same issue.

Some Democratic strategists see an analogy between the New Jersey governor's race and a possible presidential campaign in 1996. The present contest, they note, pits a governor who raised taxes against a candidate who promises to lower them by 30 percent over three years. The governor also has gone toe to toe with the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) on the issue of banning the sale of assault weapons. And there has been considerable debate over welfare reform in the state, a key Clinton issue. Florio still ahead

The fact that Mr. Florio is still ahead going into the final weekend before the election is surprising. After raising taxes, his popularity plummeted. New Jersey's unemployment rate soared amid a crush of business failures. A scandal over the awarding of a bond underwriting focused on the governor's top adviser. ``Florio was as weak a candidate as you can imagine,'' Mr. Salmore says.

Ms. Whitman stumbled badly, however, permitting Florio to focus the campaign on her competence. His ads depicted her as ``out to lunch.'' Salmore says Whitman, a wealthy former state utilities commissioner who nearly beat Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in 1990, made ``every mistake in the book.'' Her campaign didn't turn around until she hired GOP consultant Ed Rollins, who replaced her brother as campaign manager.

By then, however, Florio attacks had begun working. In polls, more than 25 percent of Republicans say they are planning to vote for Florio. Republicans are defecting to him at a much faster rate than Democrats are shifting to Whitman. This has forced her to spend more time in Republican areas and less time meeting undecided voters.

In campaign appearances, she seems to have a slightly detached manner. On Tuesday, at a Hackensack meeting of the Bergen County Medical Society, she gave a fairly standard campaign speech, telling doctors how ``hope has dissolved'' in the state. She briefly outlined plans for a tax cut, explaining how she could come up with $1.2 billion in the first year of the cut.

On the same day, Florio visited a veterans' hall in Brick Township. He told the mostly retired crowd about his grandfather, Giuseppe, an iceman, and his father, Vincenzo, a shipbuilder. And then he told them that the American dream still lives - his daughter has become a doctor. Even though Florio has given this speech countless times, audiences still seem captivated.

Retiree Bill McCracken, for example, tells a reporter that he wants a reduction in his property taxes - a common request in the state. But, as Florio shakes Mr. McCracken's hand, the vet does not talk about taxes, but instead tells the governor that his own father was also a shipbuilder. Governor uses NRA bait

At the same time, Florio has maintained attacks on Whitman. Ninety minutes up the Garden State Parkway, in Clifton, the governor hands out fliers claiming that the state chapter of the NRA is endorsing Whitman. He answers the question ``What if it is an unsolicited endorsement?'' by replying that voters have a choice over whether they want to support someone ``who carries out the NRA's agenda.''

Outside the meeting with the Medical Society, Whitman denies that she is supported by the NRA, instead claiming that Florio has, in the past, been endorsed by the NRA. ``I have said, repeatedly, and the governor knows this, `I oppose assault weapons and certainly don't want to see assault weapons on the street,' '' she says.

Whitman's rebuttals to the governor are finally beginning to register with voters. During televised debates this month, she began to remind voters about the increased taxes and depressed state economy. At the same time, Florio's intensity surfaced. ``He sort of sneers, and she came across as a reasonable person,'' Salmore says.

In the campaign's waning hours, Florio has stressed his editorial endorsements. He has received far more than Whitman, who is busy convincing voters she's a credible alternative.

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