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Whitman, Foes All Calling for Change

This cycle, along with money and name identification, the most important component of a Congressional campaign might be the ability of a candidate — no matter how well connected or established they may be — to pick up the mantle of change.

Just look at what’s going on in New Jersey’s 7th district Republican primary.

With two weeks to go in the seven-way race to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Mike Ferguson (R), state Sen. Leonard Lance and former Congressional aide Kate Whitman have emerged as the two frontrunners in the GOP contest.

Lance is a 17-year veteran of the Legislature and represents the third generation of his family to serve in state office in Trenton.

He says he’s the candidate who will bring change to 7th district voters.

Whitman, the daughter of former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), has worked as a staff aide on Capitol Hill and for the Bush administration before becoming the executive director of the Republican Leadership Council.

She says that she is the candidate for change.

Lance has earned most of the support from the state and local Republican party establishment and, perhaps more importantly, earned the all-important county lines in two of the four counties that make up the district, including his home county of Hunterdon. Those two counties account for about two-thirds of the total Republican vote in the district.

Kate Whitman has proven to be a capable fundraiser who has made good use of her connections in Washington, D.C., and the influence of her family name in New Jersey. As of March 31, she had raised more than $440,000 for her campaign to Lance’s less than $300,000. But though she hails from Somerset County, she has only been able to pick up the county line in Middlesex County, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the vote in the GOP primary.

The Union County line has gone to Kelly Hatfield, a former Summit County freeholder.

“It’s a unique situation for Kate. While she has almost universal name ID, she is really running as the outsider and the reform candidate,” Whitman campaign consultant Mark Campbell said Tuesday. “Unfortunately the party establishment still seems bent on supporting whose turn it is as opposed to who the best candidate might be as far as having a general election contrast.”

The GOP primary winner will face state Assemblywoman Linda Stender, the 2006 Democratic nominee who finished just 1 point behind Ferguson in the previous cycle. Republicans will need to be unified to compete with a Stender in a suburban district that appears to be trending Democratic.

As Lance was rolling out endorsements from state and local politicians this spring, Whitman has gone on the attack, accusing Lance of failing taxpayers during his time in the Legislature.

One ad in particular, which said that spending and property taxes had increased during Lance’s time in Trenton, caused a stir in April when Ferguson himself stepped off the sidelines to say that the Whitman ad was misleading because it failed to point out that Lance had voted against those increases.

Lance has made his fiscal conservative record a key component of his campaign. In fact it’s one of the key reasons he says he is a “change candidate” in this election.

Lance said Tuesday, “I have a proven record of fighting irresponsible spending regardless of which party has been in control in Trenton, and that is what I’ll do in Washington and therefore I believe I am the agent of change necessary given the fact that economic issues are at the forefront of the discussion in America this year.”

In a not so subtle dig at Whitman, Lance pointed out that he was standing up for fiscal responsibility when he voted against her mother’s pension bond plan in 1997 and said he continued to fight what he saw as excessive borrowing under the administration of former Gov. Jim McGreevey (D).

Whitman defended her attack on Lance’s voting record in local papers last month.

“I am not saying that Leonard Lance hasn’t been down in Trenton and hasn’t fought the good fight,” she told the Bridgewater Courier-News. “I think he has fought, but he has failed. My point is that he had his chance, he failed, and now it’s time for someone new.”

In the coming weeks, a few key factors could swing this race one way or the other.

First, it will be interesting to see how aggressive a campaign Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks runs. Marks has positioned himself to the right of the other candidates in the primary and earned a big boost when the political action committee for New Jersey Right to Life endorsed him earlier this month. Some Republican observers said that Marks could be the surprise dark horse in this race if he can use that endorsement to turn out the significant anti-abortion rights voting bloc in the district.

Campbell said a strong campaign by Marks will play to Whitman’s favor.

“There are a lot of pro-life voters in Leonard Lance’s [Hunterdon] base who think he’s pro- life when he’s not,” Campbell said.

It will also be interesting to watch the late fundraising numbers come in.

One New Jersey Republican strategist said Tuesday that “one of the things that is a head wind for [Whitman] is that I think she was counting on really significantly outraising [Lance] from a fundraising standpoint and that hasn’t materialized dramatically yet.”

Whitman has raised more cash than Lance, but in the New York media market where a weeklong broadcast ad buy can easily cost $1 million, a few hundred thousand dollars isn’t a huge lead. (Both candidates are up on cable television.)

Regardless of who wins the Republican primary, the GOP faces a tough battle in November against Stender.

This cycle, Stender began ramping up her fundraising operation even before Ferguson disclosed his retirement plans. She has raised more than $1 million and had $845,000 in cash on hand as of the end of the first quarter. Meanwhile, the cash-flush Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made the 7th a top target in the fall.

As the Republicans continue to duke it out in their primary race, it should probably come as no surprise that Stender spokeswoman Abby Curran said Tuesday that the four-term assemblywoman is working to ensure voters know she has a vision for change in Congress.

“While our Republican opponents continue to attack each other on TV and in the mail, Linda Stender is building the organization needed to win in November,” Curran said. “Linda Stender continues to raise the resources needed to spread her message of change to voters. Meanwhile, the eventual Republican nominee will emerge damaged and with little money in the bank following next month’s primary.”

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