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GOP Tries Aping the Whitman Solution : Campaign: Candidates across country are pushing N.J. governor's tax cut plan. They seek to benefit from the early success of her economic policies.

November 05, 1994|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRENTON, N.J. — Perhaps the best evidence of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's emergence as a national political force came this week when she became the target of an orchestrated campaign attack by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate-- in Maryland.

Maryland Democrat Parris Glendening is running hard against a woman who styles herself a "Christie Whitman Republican," promising to copy the New Jersey chief executive's enormously popular state economic policies, which are highlighted by steep income tax cuts. Recently, Glendening invited five New Jersey residents to a press conference to warn Maryland voters of nightmarish budgetary consequences for their state should they choose a Whitman clone.

Like the Maryland race, this fall's elections in many states are turning to a remarkable degree into a referendum on the economic policies of New Jersey's first woman governor--who narrowly defeated incumbent James J. Florio last year on a promise of tax and spending cuts.

At issue is whether the Whitman-style mix of immediate tax cuts and longer term spending reductions offers a formula for a Republican revival in the 1990s, or will boomerang into a repeat of budget-busting "trickle-down" Ronald Reagan economic policies.

So far, however, Whitman and her policies have proved hugely popular in her state and the 48-year-old governor is in constant demand as a speaker and fund-raiser for Republican candidates all across the nation, from Senate candidate Olympia J. Snowe in Maine to Gov. Pete Wilson in California. In fact, GOP operatives are already touting her as a potential vice presidential candidate in 1996.

Her success so far has prompted shameless copying of her economic agenda by Republican candidates in one state after another in this election season. In the process, she has helped put cutting taxes back at the top of the Republican agenda, helping the party move beyond the debacle of candidate George Bush's failure to live up to his "read my lips" pledge not to raise taxes.

In New York, for example, Republican George Pataki is challenging Gov. Mario M. Cuomo with a Whitman-style tax cut platform, while tax cuts are at the heart of the gubernatorial campaigns of David Beasley in South Carolina, Frank Keating in Oklahoma and Ellen Sauerbrey in Maryland.

Whitman's success also has bolstered the Republican commitment to make promises of steep tax cuts at the federal level a central element of the party's campaign to win control of Congress as well. More than 300 Republican candidates have signed onto a controversial "contract with America," which calls for a wide range of personal and business tax cuts, including a $500 per child tax credit, tax relief for married couples, expanded individual retirement accounts and a 50% cut in the capital gains tax for businesses.

More broadly, the popularity of Whitman's economic agenda has underscored once again for the Republican Party that the winning formula for political victory is being fashioned at the state level by a new breed of moderate Republican governors--rather than in Washington. Whitman has joined John Engler in Michigan, William F. Weld in Massachusetts and Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin as leaders in an attempt to give new energy to their party.

"What we are doing here is what other Republican governors have been trying to do around the country in the last couple of years. I just may have defined the agenda a little more clearly and moved it more rapidly," Whitman observed in a recent interview.

Whitman owes her high approval ratings in large part to her unique mix of conservative fiscal policy and liberal social agenda, highlighted by her stance in favor of abortion rights, thus offering what she hopes is a model for dominance by the GOP.

More concretely, though, she has begun to carry out her most controversial promise of the 1993 campaign. After pledging to cut income taxes by 30% over three years, she has pushed through a 15% tax cut in her first year in office.

But many analysts said that they believe her politically popular tax cuts represent a ticking fiscal time bomb that will lead to budgetary disaster for New Jersey--and political disaster for Whitman--raising questions about whether her policies really offer a solid model for her party.

Even Whitman's aides conceded that a huge budgetary shortfall in a state with a balanced-budget law may mean that she will not be able to cut taxes again next year. That could force her to seek another huge tax cut at the end of her term, if she is to live up to her campaign pledge. And that could force her to indulge in bookkeeping sleight of hand or other gimmicks to make the budgetary math work. State Treasurer Brian Clymer already is scrambling to find ways to cover a deficit that could reach $2 billion next year in a budget that totals just $15.3 billion.

"This next budget is going to be the toughest," acknowledged Whitman. "But really, the next three or four budgets are all going to be very tough."

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