Without Weicker, Governor's Race In Conn. Is Warmed-Over Politics

CONNECTICUT politics has lost much of its spark, in the person of Gov. Lowell Weicker. Long a renegade Republican and now an independent with his own ``party,'' Mr. Weicker announced late last year he wouldn't seek a second term as the state's chief executive.

That cleared the way for a race with plenty of contestants but little of the rhetorical fire that Weicker always managed to bring to his campaigns, whether as a three-term United States senator or a one-term governor.

``People feel strongly about him, one way or the other,'' says Donald Ferree, who conducts the Connecticut Poll, a statewide public opinion survey.

Minus the governor's ``dominant personality,'' says Mr. Ferree, ``the race we're left with today is on the bland side.''

Though some observers have speculated that Weicker would have been an odds-on favorite for reelection, many in Connecticut are doubtless glad to see him go. When he decided to push for a state income tax soon after taking office in 1990, Weicker precipitated a political firestorm in this usually placid corner of New England.

Avoidance of this tax had been an article of faith in Connecticut politics, and Weicker's political apostasy unleashed ``more passion than anything I've ever seen in this state,'' says Wayne Shannon, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. The income tax became law early in Weicker's tenure. The public's passion has since cooled, according to Ferree. After an initial jump, taxes have remained stable lately, so ``it's not a big issue now,'' he says. But that could change if someone decides to inject the income tax into the current race.

Such an injection isn't likely to come from the current crop of candidates, Mr. Shannon says. The front-runners - determined both by name recognition in opinion surveys and by the amount of money they've raised for their campaigns - are Republican John Rowland, a former US representative from Waterbury, and John Larson, a Democratic state senator from East Harford.

Mr. Rowland was narrowly beaten by Weicker in the governor's race four years ago. He is by far the best-known of the '94 contenders. But that early name-recognition advantage could easily dissolve as the campaign moves along, observers say.

Also in the race is Eunice Groark, Weicker's Lt. Governor and the inheritor of his place at the head of ``A Connecticut Party,'' as the outgoing governor's organization is nondescriptly known. The value of this inheritance is debatable. Weicker's ``party'' is widely seen as a personal vehicle unlikely to carry anyone else. Shannon recalls following Weicker's campaign in 1990 and finding that there was ``no structure there.'' It was ``an electronic candidacy of his,'' says the political scientist.

``A Connecticut Party'' does, however, get top billing on this year's ballot, since it was the top vote-getter in the last gubernatorial contest. Last time around, the third-place Democrats barely got enough votes to reach the 20 percent threshold for recognition as a ``major party'' in the state.

An interesting phenomenon, Ferree says, is the temptation this time around for some Democratic candidates to indulge in ``cross endorsements.'' That quirk of Connecticut politics would allow them to run on both the ``A Connecticut Party'' line of the ballot - and thus share top billing - as well as on the more lowly Democratic Party line. Democratic leaders are trying to discourage this, Ferree says, since it might boost Ms. Groark's chances if she was linked to other, somewhat better known local candidates.

Other public concerns capable of igniting the '94 governor's campaign are in short supply, say Ferree and Shannon. Most the candidates pledge ``job creation'' or some variation thereof, and ``there are always the standard issues of crime and educational quality,'' Ferree says.

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