LONG BRANCH, N.J. — The red, white and blue balloons bobbed up and down with the music while the Democratic Party faithful chomped on submarine sandwiches. As they ate, Bill Bradley, the erstwhile U.S. senator who remains the most exalted icon for New Jersey Democrats, roused them with a bold prediction about the state's gubernatorial election in November.
"This year is the year Democrats are going to win when nobody thought we could," he declared.
Even as they cheered, the 400 activists gathered at this seashore resort recognized the rhetoric as an optimistic stretch. Republican incumbent Christine Todd Whitman remains the favorite to win reelection and solidify her credentials as a comer on the national political scene. Still, Bradley's assertion no longer seems indefensible.
"Three months ago, nobody thought the Democrats had a chance" to short-circuit Whitman's political ambitions, says Rutgers University political scientist Cliff Zukin. But Whitman has stumbled of late over the same rugged fiscal terrain that tripped up her Democratic predecessor.
"Now," Zukin says, "the Democrats have a chance."
As they gear up for a June 3 primary to pick a candidate, the Democrats' face-off with Whitman looms as having significance that extends well beyond New Jersey's bustling shopping malls and sprawling housing developments. As it evolves, the general election contest is expected to reflect some of the challenges faced nationally by Democrats and Republicans.
For the GOP, the campaign should help answer whether Whitman's blend of fiscal conservatism and fervent support for abortion rights amounts to a winning formula for governing. For Democrats, the test is whether in the Clinton era, when the party's liberal creed has been diluted by ambiguity, their candidate can define himself in a way that gains the electorate's confidence.
It seems fitting these issues should be thrashed out in New Jersey, where Whitman's 1993 defeat of James J. Florio--blamed on a hefty state tax increase he pushed for--was regarded as a harbinger of the 1994 GOP seizure of Congress.
As governor, Whitman kept her promise to trim income taxes, slashing them by 30%. But Democrats claim she did it with mirrors, in part by cutting the state's annual contributions to its seven pension funds. The grumbling got louder earlier this year when Whitman called for yet another cut in the state's pension-fund contributions and proposed making up the difference by issuing state bonds to borrow $2.9 billion over 35 years. A key GOP legislative leader joined Democrats in criticizing the idea, calling it "wacko."
Then last week, the state Supreme Court ruled that Whitman's plan for improving urban schools by stressing curriculum standards rather than spending more money violated the state Constitution's guarantee of equal educational opportunity. Democrats noted it was that guarantee that prompted Florio's notorious tax increase.
Still, neither of the two leading Democratic contenders is prepared to follow Florio's path. Rep. Robert E. Andrews has vowed not to raise taxes if elected. His chief rival, state Sen. James E. McGreevey, disdains such a promise as "premature" but claims he can equitably finance the schools and balance the budget simply by managing the state's resources better.