Gov. Christine Whitman had stopped by the Summit Child Care Center for an endorsement and press conference. A poster, taped to the wall here, gave her one child's peculiar view of what a governor does: "She fixes peoples' vacuum cleaners," opined Rose, a three-year-old.
If Governor Whitman can't start to attract more votes in the Garden State, Rose may be right - Whitman may be searching for another profession. With fewer than three weeks left until the election, polls show Whitman's race against Jim McGreevey, the mayor of Woodbridge Township, is closer than the political pros expected. One recent survey shows Mr. McGreevey trailing by only 3 to 4 percentage points.
The race, one of only two governor's races this fall, is being watched nationally because of Whitman's prominence among Republicans as a champion for tax cutters. The governor has also been mentioned as possible White House material, although she may be too liberal for the Republican Party.
"Of all the candidates running this year, she has the most star power," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Bringing in the big guns
Because of the high stakes, the race is pulling in big guns. President and Mrs. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and other Democratic big wigs have trooped to the state. This week, Steve Grossman, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), found time to break away from damage control over his party's fund-raising, to help McGreevey. On the Republican side, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine campaigned with Whitman Tuesday.
Political analysts say the race illustrates the difficulty politicians have in keeping the electorate satisfied. Polls show that Whitman's move to reduce state income taxes 30 percent is enormously popular. However, the tax reductions happened several years ago. "People are asking, 'What have you done for me lately?' There is no such thing as gratitude in politics," says Mr. Sabato.
Part of this may be Whitman's fault, political analysts say, for being slow to articulate her plan for a second term. She talks about continuing to lower the crime rate and improving the quality of life, but has not talked about any new major legislative initiatives. "People really can't tell you what her agenda is," says Cliff Zukin, a professor at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "I think she gets more credit as a good manager than a good leader."
Instead, Whitman has become mired down in a debate over the state's auto-insurance rates, which are the highest in the nation. Earlier this year, she introduced legislation intended to reduce rates by 5 to 25 percent, but she counted on consumers giving up their rights to sue for pain and suffering. However, it failed to pass the Legislature, and McGreevey began attacking on the issue.
The Democrats have also launched a barrage over some sexual-harassment issues involving a member of Whitman's Cabinet and the head of the state GOP. The Democrats claim Whitman has shielded the men. These charges rankle Whitman, who says she has signed 50 separate bills to protect women. In fact, this week, she received the endorsement of several women's groups.
A third-party candidate, Murray Sabrin of the Libertarian Party, is complicating Whitman's effort as well. Whitman, who is pro-choice, has angered some conservative Republicans because of her abortion stance. Mr. Sabrin is expected to win 4 to 5 percent of the vote. "If [Whitman] loses, what does it say about the viability of a pro-choice Republican?" asks Steve Salmore, a Republican political consultant.
Different this time
Four years ago, Whitman's campaign was much easier because former Gov. Jim Florio (D) was unpopular for raising taxes. Whitman had hired Republican political operative Ed Rollins, who roiled the state when he said he had used dirty tricks to keep the urban black vote low. He later recanted those statements, which were unproved.
But, McGreevey is no Florio. He is a much better campaigner, for example. His ability to connect with people was apparent Tuesday when he visited the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. He brought tears to some eyes - including his own - when he talked about his recent visit to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington and how the museum brings home to Americans the issue of knowing the difference between right and wrong.
"The first time I heard Jim, I said, 'Wow this guy has a message that will resonate,' " says the DNC's Mr. Grossman. With the race now tighter than expected, the DNC has decided to try to raise an additional $1 million to spend on the campaign for party advertising.
The ads will be aimed at a huge undecided vote - as much as 30 percent in some polls. Whitman says the undecideds are typical for the state, which has more Independent voters than Republicans or Democrats. "It's New Jersey voters' way of saying, 'We want to keep you honest. We want to hear you to the last minute,' " she says.