MIKE PADO, a Red Bank, N.J., resident, is not sure who is running to replace departing Sen. Bill Bradley (D). ''It hasn't captured my attention yet,'' says Mr. Pado, who considers himself an independent voter.
It won't take long, however, before Pado begins to get bombarded by candidates aiming for Senator Bradley's seat.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Robert Torricelli, from the northern part of the state, plans to announce his candidacy on Monday. On the Republican ticket, the front-runner, Rep. Dick Zimmer from central Jersey, is busy fund-raising and collecting endorsements.
The race is likely to garner substantial national attention. In an era of growing disaffection with political parties, New Jersey has one of the nation's highest concentrations of independent voters like Pado. About 40 percent of the state's voters are independents, with the rest evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The race will thus offer insights into how the nation's increasingly free-wheeling electorate is leaning.
''The race is important in the sense that we have a very unanchored electorate in New Jersey and nationwide,'' says Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
In addition, political shifts often take place in the Garden State before they happen nationally. For example, New Jersey voters chose Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) and her platform for tax cuts a year before the national budget cutting began in earnest.
The race will also mirror many other contests around the country where the Republicans will try to take credit for a balanced budget while the Democrats will blame them for shredding programs. ''Who will win may depend on the national ticket,'' says Steve Salmore of the Eagleton Institute.
A recent Star Ledger/Eagleton Institute poll showed Zimmer with a slight lead over Torricelli. But, Mr. Zukin says, ''Both candidates have the task of introducing themselves to the electorate - both have to build an image for themselves.''
As they do that, both sides are also likely to put considerable effort into negative advertising. Torricelli says the focus of his campaign will be to portray Zimmer as a ''departure from the moderate political tradition in the state.'' He plans to paint Zimmer as a proxy for the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R).
Changes spurred by the GOP revolution in Congress also are likely to become campaign issues. ''When you shift the burden back to the state and local level without any money, this translates into higher property taxes - an especially sensitive issue in New Jersey,'' says former Gov. Jim Florio (D), who was voted out of office in large part because of the tax issue.
Zimmer says he will portray his opponent as a liberal and ''one of the biggest spenders in Congress.'' He will have to point to past budgets, however, since Torricelli voted for the current GOP tax cuts and the balanced-budget efforts.
Since New Jersey has one of the country's highest percentages of senior citizens, a key issue this year is likely to be Zimmer's vote on Medicare reform. The Republican initially voted for slowing the rate of growth of Medicare when the bill was in a House committee, but switched his vote on the House floor. His office says the bill was changed by the GOP leadership once it came out of committee.
Zimmer and other Republicans were successful at reworking the bill so it would be less costly to New Jersey. But Torricelli calls the final legislation, which was supported by Zimmer, ''a disaster for the state.'' He claims the state will lose 11 hospitals and $13 billion in revenue. Zimmer replies that the reform package prevents Medicare from going into bankruptcy.
Zimmer's initial vote against the bill raised the ire of Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee. ''The leadership was unhappy with my vote, but we explained that the bill was unfair to New Jersey,'' says Zimmer.
In fact, there were some published reports that the RNC might consider throwing its support to a different candidate in the Republican primary in June. But Mr. Barbour says, ''The RNC and I don't take sides in primaries, even if we don't like the way a member votes.''
Getting national support could be essential for fund-raising purposes. In 1990, Senator Bradley raised $12 million in his close race against challenger Mrs. Whitman. Zimmer says he would like to raise $8 million, while Torricelli is aiming for $7 million.