Corzine, Florio In Final Lap Of Campaign The Two Democrats And The Four Gop Rivals For U.s. Senate Crossed New Jersey. The Primary Is Tuesday.

Posted: June 04, 2000

Sixteen months after New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's surprise withdrawal from the 2000 race, the six candidates seeking to replace him are criss-crossing the state this weekend in a final appeal for votes before Tuesday's primary.

On the Democratic side, former Gov. Jim Florio and ex-Wall Street executive Jon S. Corzine took their brutally contested nomination fight yesterday to the state's population centers stretching from Trenton to Newark.

Corzine, whose estimated $400 million personal fortune is enabling him to spend the kind of money on his campaign that top-tier presidential candidates spend on theirs, was accompanied by Martin Luther King 3d as he keyed on urban voters.

Florio waded into the heart of presumed Corzine territory, campaigning in Hudson, Union and Mercer Counties in a bid to overcome opposition mounted against him by the party establishment across central and northern New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the four contenders for the Republican Senate nomination concentrated on critical GOP areas such as Bergen, Morris, Union and Monmouth Counties.

Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Franks of Union County, taking a page from Gov. Whitman's playbook, traveled to meet voters in a rented luxury bus festooned with campaign placards.

State Sen. William L. Gormley, of Atlantic County, campaigned in his trademark fashion in Morris County by jogging from house to house - shaking hands and dropping off literature.

Murray Sabrin, a GOP newcomer running as the conservative maverick, spoke of his opposition to gun control to members of a gun club in Lakewood. Essex County Executive James Treffinger, who concentrated on fund-raising yesterday, had scheduled a full day of campaigning today.

Most of the attention remained focused on the Democratic contest, which has captured national attention because of Corzine's record-setting spending.

While shaking the hands of as many Democrats as possible, Corzine turned up the volume on his extraordinarily expensive television ad campaign, spending nearly $3 million on Philadelphia and New York television ads in the closing days of the race. Overall, Corzine's three-month television barrage will cost nearly $25 million.

At the same time, his campaign was preparing to flood allied local-level Democratic organizations with upwards of $2 million in "street money" - an unheard of amount in statewide races anywhere - for distribution to workers assigned to get voters to the polls on Tuesday, according to those involved in the effort.

Florio, by contrast, is mounting an election-day effort consisting of what his campaign says will be roughly 2,000 volunteers. That effort will be concentrated in his South Jersey base, but Florio allies are also fanning out across North Jersey in an attempt to cut into Corzine's support there.

Polls show Corzine ahead as the primary nears, but Florio is hoping that residual loyalty among Democrats built up over his 30-year career - and a possible backlash against Corzine's spending - can carry him to an upset win.

Marching in the Secaucus municipal parade yesterday, Florio said that Corzine's spending amounted to "overkill" and would be repudiated by Democrats in the primary.

Corzine, who has been on the defensive about the record-setting amount he is spending - his final campaign expenses are expected to fall somewhere between $35 million and $40 million - is telling Democratic voters that he is more electable than Florio in November because of the $2.8 billion tax increase that Florio sponsored as governor.

The issue of Corzine's spending - he is outspending Florio by a nearly 20-to-1 ratio, and his primary campaign expenses alone are about four times that of any other Senate candidate in U.S. history - has dominated the Democratic primary in recent weeks.

Voters asked about it yesterday gave mixed reactions, with some saying it made no difference in their decision and others calling it an embarrassment to their party.

At a Corzine campaign event in Belleville, Charles Drinkard, a community organizer for Babyland Family Services, said: "Whether someone spends $30 million or $3, it's not going to make a difference to these people. The fact that someone would show up at their door . . . has more of an impact that anything else."

But Allison Dorsey, of Montclair, said Corzine's spending may have lost her vote.

"The amount of money he's spent really makes me not want to like him," she said.

As the campaign moved through its final weekend, the primary that has polarized the state Democratic Party to an extent rarely seen in New Jersey was driving Democrats even further apart.

Furious that state Democratic leaders had not remained neutral in the contest, the coalition of South Jersey officials supporting Florio boycotted a unity meeting convened Friday by New Jersey Democratic chairman Tom Giblin.

Citing Corzine's use of private detectives to investigate Florio and Corzine's hefty donations to Democrats supporting his candidacy, Camden County Democratic chairman David Luthman sent Giblin a strongly worded letter that read, in part: "These tactics would be considered outrageous if a Republican used them against us. Even Richard Nixon saved his worst dirty tricks for opponents outside his own party."

He added: "How many editorials do you need to suggest that our state party and its leadership is for sale before you realize the extent of the damage that has occurred?"

Giblin said he suspected that the South Jersey Democrats were trying mainly to "solidify their base," and that the party would unite for the goal of carrying New Jersey for Vice President Gore and the rest of the state Democratic ticket in November.

Lautenberg's decision to retire after three terms touched off the geographical war within his own party and revived GOP hopes of taking the seat.

The Republicans are trying to end a generation of futility in New Jersey Senate races; they haven't elected one of their own to the Senate since 1974.

Independent analysts have suggested that the virulent Democratic contest would work to the GOP's advantage in the general election.

Jennifer Duffy, who watches the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said that Corzine's saturation television advertising had effectively driven up Florio's already high negatives by relentlessly criticizing the former governor's $2.8 billion tax increase.

At the same time, she said, Corzine's unprecedented spending and his slashing attacks have undercut his appeal as a political newcomer independent of the party bosses, prompting a possible voter backlash if he wins the primary.

In contrast, "Whoever gets the Republican nomination is going to look like a fresh face," Duffy said.

"At first, [Republicans] were worried that Corzine, in addition to all his money, would have built up such a head of steam in the primary that he would be the favorite in November, assuming he beat Florio," Duffy said. "Now they realize that Corzine would not walk into the general election as strong as they had thought he might be."

At nearly all of his campaign stops, Corzine was accompanied by Democratic establishment officials in North and Central New Jersey who had joined New Jersey Sen. Robert G. Torricelli in backing him in an attempt to stop Florio's political comeback. Lautenberg planned to be with Corzine at several events today.

Florio, stumping hard in hopes of scoring an upset, urged Democrats to reject what he said was an attempt by state party leaders to dictate the choice of a Senate nominee.

Tom Turcol's e-mail address is tturcol@phillynews.com

Inquirer suburban staff writers Lauren Mayk, Adam Cataldo and Melanie Scott contributed to this article.

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