N.J.'s Study In Contrast

People watch the strong waves produced by Tropical Storm Ernesto in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2006.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
In New Jersey, a Gingrich-loyal Republican will square off against a very well-heeled Democrat for the state's open Senate seat.

Ironically, perhaps, it's the self-professed liberal who has ocean-deep pockets, while the conservative seems strapped for cash. That may not last long, since the big-time national political machine will undoubtedly set its sights on this race, but it's certainly the lay of the land this week.

Democrat Jon Corzine, fresh off a $30 million primary victory in New Jersey, has begun the work of shifting focus from his record-breaking spending to the issues he cares about.

While his Republican rival, Bob Franks, said a discussion of issues would be fine with him, Franks certainly was not letting Corzine off easy on campaign spending, either.

Both men made brief public appearances Wednesday after winning their party primaries a day earlier.

"What is truly dangerous about Jon Corzine isn't the fact that he spent 30 million of his own dollars to buy the Democratic Party nomination," Franks said Wednesday at a diner in Hamilton, N.J. "What's truly dangerous is the prospect of Jon Corzine sitting in the U.S. Senate having the authority to spend our money."

During his morning stops at train stations in Summit and Jersey City, Corzine stood by his call for an activist federal government that would provide universal access for all to health insurance, nursing-home care and free education from preschool to college.

"We're going to get down to the debate about issues," Corzine said. "There will be a lot of clarification and I think we'll identify with the public very well."

With the November contest set, top-level state politicians have begun weighing in.

Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, head of the Democratic campaign effort for the Senate this year, insisted Corzine can play a role "in a more moderate Democratic Party, with a new credibility on issues of taxes and spending."

Gov. Christie Whitman, a Republican who once planned to seek the Senate seat, said Franks needs to press Corzine on "how he's going to pay for all those wonderful-sounding programs."

Corzine outspent Florio by roughly 10-to-1 in the Democratic primary - spending $33 million in total - and beat former Gov. Jim Florio by 58 to 42 percent. Corzine has declined to discuss how much money he is prepared to spend on the general election. His estimated net worth is $400 million. In a four-man GOP field, Franks narrowly beat state Sen. William Gormley of Atlantic County.

Franks, by contrast, is one of the more checkbook-challenged of New Jersey's House members. According to his most recent financial disclosure statement, Franks' major assets were two bank accounts, each under $15,000, along with less than $100,000 in a federal thrift savings plan.

About 13.4 percent of the state's 4.5 million registered voters participated in either the Democratic or Republican pimary. About 2.5 million of the registered voters list no party affiliation and generally do not participate in party primaries, although they are allowed to.

Corzine and Franks live minutes apart in Union County and begin the campaign with an unusually friendly link: Both are members of the same Methodist congregation, Christ Church in Summit. The minister there, the Rev. Charles Rush, is already prepared. He has Corzine and Franks bumper stickers on his car.

Still, in a preview of the general campaign, Franks devoted a large chunk of his victory speech to assailing Corzine.

"His lavish spending during the course of this campaign demonstrates that Mr. Corzine is truly extravagant with his own money," Franks told exuberant supporters. "If he has such little regard for his own money, what regard will he have for yours, and your children's, and your parents'?"

A supporter on stage drew cheers with a sign reading, "Make him spend it all, Bob."

But Corzine's campaign was not waiting to return fire:

"Bob Franks has an extensive public record that includes many votes and policy positions (in line with) the Newt Gingrich and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party," Corzine campaign manager Steven Goldstein said. "He's going to have a hard time portraying Jon Corzine as out of the mainstream."

Franks has faced such criticism before. He remained loyal to Gingrich when the former House Speaker faced ethics allegations and was one of five New Jersey Republicans who voted for all 15 pieces of the Contract With America.

Corzine campaign manager Steven Goldstein said Franks' acceptance speech "was astounding. He offered no positive vision. He said, `I'm Bob Franks, I'm a Republican, and I'm now going to bash Jon Corzine because of his money.' Well, Jim Florio tried the same tactic and it backfired."

Add up the rhetoric, fold in each of the candidates' strengths and weaknesses, set it against the backdrop of what could be a battle for control of the U.S. Senate, and New Jersey is looking like a potentially crackling Senate battleground.

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