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Jersey's Falling Star

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Jersey's Falling Star

Christie Whitman faces voters angry over taxes and car-insurance rates

By Adam Cohen/TIME

Time cover

TRENTON, N.J. (TIME, Oct. 27) -- New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman's campaign is in trouble, but you wouldn't know it from the breezy air and Ralph Lauren setting of her latest television commercial. The Governor strolls through rolling hills and lush gardens, tossing a football with her family. Taylor Whitman, 18, sporting a blue button-down shirt and crisp chinos, praises his mother's integrity while posing in front of a well-landscaped flower bed. Kate Whitman, 20, talks about the candidate's ability to "forget all the political stuff and be a mom" while ambling past a hunt-country-style wooden fence in tennis shorts and sweater. The ad is clearly intended to make a family-to-family connection between the Governor and her electorate. But its unintended effect is to remind viewers of the wide chasm that separates this upper-crust clan, which beds down at the 222-acre Pontefract Farm, from the average undecided voter trying to pay the taxes on a row house in Bayonne.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Since she was elected Governor four years ago, Whitman has become a pillar of moderate Republicanism, the first woman to deliver a State of the Union response and a frequently mentioned candidate for Vice President. Her state is flying high, with unemployment at a seven-year low and welfare rolls cut 31%. And she is good on the stump: parents constantly push squirming children into her arms and whip out Instamatics to record the moment for posterity. But despite it all, Whitman's bid for re-election is fast shaping up as the cakewalk that wasn't. Her favorable ratings have dipped below 50%, a traditional red flag for an incumbent, and recent polls are declaring the race too close to call.

Whitman's Democratic opponent is James McGreevey, a state senator and mayor of Woodbridge (pop. 93,000), the state's fifth largest city. McGreevey has made up for a lack of statewide name recognition with an energetic campaign focused on the weakest parts of Whitman's record: property taxes and auto insurance. New Jersey's electorate has a habit of choosing its politicians on pocketbook issues. "It's an expensive state to live in, and people are concerned about money being taken out of their wallets for any reason," explains pollster Mark Mellman. New Jersey leads the nation in average auto-insurance premiums ($1,169) and average property taxes ($3,864). Garden State voters are telling pollsters that these drags on the family budget are their No. 1 and No. 2 concerns.

McGreevey contends that Whitman had four years to find a way to brake the runaway insurance premiums, without results. Whitman responds that she has a good plan now, which would lower rates for drivers who agree in most cases not to sue for pain-and-suffering damages. She condemns McGreevey's proposal, in which he would simply order insurance companies to roll back rates, as unconstitutional. On the property-tax battlefront, McGreevey charges that Whitman's much celebrated cuts in state taxes have forced property taxes up by shifting the revenue-raising burden to school districts and other local authorities. Whitman responds that local governments simply spend too much. No matter who is right, McGreevey has effectively kept the debate exactly where Whitman doesn't want it.

Whitman also has party problems. New Jersey is increasingly Democratic turf. Clinton carried it by 18 percentage points in 1996, and Democrat Robert Torricelli won last year's Senate race by 10 points. Whitman is also learning how perilous life is these days for moderate, pro-choice, pro-gay rights Republicans like herself. Only 67% of New Jersey Republicans rated her favorably in a recent poll. Her veto of a partial-birth-abortion ban alienated many conservatives in this highly Roman Catholic state. The Christian Coalition plans to distribute 1 million election guides reminding voters of her stance. The beneficiary of alienated conservatives may be Libertarian candidate Murray Sabrin, who is targeting right-to-life voters.

The key to Whitman's victory four years ago was that she was an oddly effective populist candidate. She got grief for her multimillion-dollar net worth, and for an unfortunate comment about a tax rebate: "Funny as it might seem, $500 is a lot of money to some people." But she convinced voters she felt their pain over Governor Jim Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase. It was her vow to undo the damage with a 30% income-tax cut that gave her a winning margin of 26,093 votes. This time, though, it is the feisty McGreevey who seems to be connecting with New Jersey's dollars-and-cents voters. The closeness of the race has already hurt Whitman's national reputation. To save her governorship, she will need to show voters she understands that their lives, even in these prosperous times, are not a walk in the country.

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