Democrats Scrambling Across State Voter Apathy And Clinton's Drop In Popularity Polls Means Tough Races For Many.

Posted: October 24, 1994

While Gov. Whitman is starring on the national stage this fall, her political foes back home are pinned down on the streets of Newark and Camden.

Whether it is Frank Lautenberg fighting to hold onto his U.S. Senate seat or Cardell Cooper trying to become county executive in Essex County, Democrats across New Jersey are locked in a struggle to defend what little turf they have not surrendered to the Republicans.

As elsewhere in the country, Democratic candidates here are fighting voter apathy and an anti-incumbent sentiment fueled by anger with President Clinton and the Democratic-controlled Congress. The Democrats are also handicapped by widespread public support for a Republican governor often mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate.

It has come to this in New Jersey, where just five years ago the Democrats controlled the governor's mansion, both houses of the legislature and a solid majority of the state's congressional delegation. That was before Jim Florio pushed the package of tax increases that shook the state's political foundation.

Having already relinquished the governorship, as well as the state Senate and Assembly, the Democrats this year seem certain to lose their congressional advantage for the first time since 1964. The only suspense appears to be whether they lose one or two seats.

State Assemblyman Frank A. LoBiondo is heavily favored to win the Second District congressional seat in South Jersey, which would hand the GOP a 7-6 edge. And, an upset could be in the making in the Eighth District - centered in parts of Passaic and Essex Counties, where freshman Democratic incumbent Herbert C. Klein is locked in a close race with Republican William Martini.

Perhaps nowhere are the Democrats' troubles more glaring than in Essex County, which includes vote-rich Newark and is the party's strongest power base in the state. Aided by a bitter Democratic primary and a scandal that shook the county administration, the Republicans are within striking distance of capturing the coveted county executive's office and dealing a harsh blow to the Democrats' hopes for a comeback.

"Up and down the ticket, Essex is the battleground," said Steve DeMicco, a Democratic consultant and former executive director of the state party. ''It's critical to the fortunes of both parties. The Democrats need to hold onto Essex County if they're to position themselves for a resurgence statewide."

The importance of the Essex County race is twofold: Sizable Democratic defections there could hurt Lautenberg, who depended on huge pluralities in Essex to win his previous two elections. And the county, with its large patronage network and substantial fund-raising base, is vital to the party's hopes of recapturing the governorship.

Democrats are confident they are in better shape in other key courthouse races. They are favored to keep control of the Camden County freeholder board and possibly reclaim a majority on the Middlesex County board. Both are traditional Democratic power centers that the party needs to regain statewide political strength.

As in Essex, the state GOP is mounting a stiff fight in Camden County, supporting Democrat-turned-Republican William J. Simon in his bid to beat back the county Democratic machine and remain sheriff. The Republicans hope that a strong run by Simon can help pull some of the GOP freeholder candidates home to victory and rebuild the local Republican Party.

"He's the person we will build off of if he wins," Dean A. Armandroff, executive director of the state Republican Party, said in a recent interview. ''He brings money and workers to the party. He knows what he's doing."

Another target of the state GOP is the special election for Assembly in the 18th Legislative District, where Democrat Barbara Buono of Metuchen is challenging incumbent Republican Joanna Gregory-Scocchi. Once considered far out front, Gregory-Scocchi's campaign has been badly wounded by accusations that her employment agency has hired illegal immigrants.

The Republicans are heavily favored to win the special Assembly election in the Eighth District, situated chiefly in Burlington County, where incumbent Francis L. Bodine is facing Democrat Mary McKeon Stosuy.

This year's elections in New Jersey also defied early expectations that they would stand as somewhat of a referendum on Whitman's first year in office. Democrats, however, have generally refrained from attacking the governor because of her high poll ratings and the popularity of her tax cuts.

Whitman has campaigned for Republican candidates throughout the state, including Republican Assembly Speaker Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian, and helped them raise money in an attempt to solidify the GOP's base and to enhance her own 1997 re-election prospects. But most strategists believe she will not be hurt by individual Republican losses.

"This year amounts to a free play for her," said Steven A. Salmore, a Rutgers University political science professor and Republican consultant. "If Haytaian wins, she'll be able to claim some credit. If he doesn't, it won't hurt her because she wasn't an issue in the campaign."

Two of her potential Democratic gubernatorial opponents appear primed for relatively easy re-election victories. U.S. Reps. Robert E. Andrews and Robert G. Torricelli are fighting a battle of expectations as they position themselves for a possible run for governor in 1997.

Andrews, a Camden County Democrat seeking his third term, raised his political profile by capturing 67 percent of the vote two years ago. In the meantime, he has moved sharply to the right - if his votes at times belie his rhetoric - and has had a far easier time than had been expected against Gloucester County Sheriff James N. Hogan, whom Whitman recruited for this year's race.

Torricelli, a liberal from Bergen County, appears headed toward winning his seventh term in the House.

Anything approaching 60 percent of the vote would be considered solid wins for both Andrews and Torricelli.

The Democrats appear poised to lose their 20-year hold on the congressional seat in the Second District, where William J. Hughes' decision to retire cleared the way for a Republican comeback there.

With no incumbent to beat up on, LoBiondo, the GOP candidate, is running against Congress, arguing that the nation's business is being conducted by career politicians who are beholden to special interests. His reformist message includes support for term limits, a balanced-budget amendment and the line-item veto. He rarely mentions his opponent, Vineland lawyer Louis N. Magazzu, whose campaign has struggled desperately for money and a message.

Though confident of victory, LoBiondo and the state GOP want it to be decisive enough so that the Second District is viewed as a solid rather than marginal Republican area.

Farther north, in the other congressional race targeted by the Republicans, Democratic incumbent Klein is trying to hold on in the face of a fierce challenge from Martini, a member of the Passaic County freeholder board. Adopting the national Republican strategy, Martini is trying to link Klein, who won with 47 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 1992, as closely as he can to the policies of the Clinton administration.

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