War Eclipses New Jersey, Virginia Races
By Greg McDonald, Senior Writer
September 11 changed America. People talk about a new patriotism and tolerance for one another, a new sense of purpose. This new reality is hardly reflected in the only major U.S. election campaigns this year. In New Jersey and Virginia, both of which were tragically affected by the the terrorist attacks, the candidates for governor are trying to engage distracted voters with traditional politics.
In the homestretch of the Garden State race, Republican Bret Schundler and Democrat Jim McGreevey are playing hardball politics that tend to distort rather than amplify how they would handle issues such as taxes and education, experts say.
The political line - when in doubt, go negative - has never rung clearer. "Unfortunately, people do respond to negatives." says political scientist and sometimes Republican consultant Stephen Salmore.
Schundler, Jersey City's conservative mayor, is painting McGreevey as a big spending liberal who will raise taxes and wreck the state's education system. Recent polls show he is slowly whittling away at McGreevey's 10-to-12 point lead going into the last week of the campaign.
McGreevey, a former state assemblyman who came within 20,000 votes of defeating former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman four years ago, says his opponent is part of the same old crowd that "made New Jersey number one" in higher car insurance premiums, property taxes and toxic waste sites.
McGreevey remains the favorite. But "anything is possible in this unique election year," says Salmore, a professor emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
One of the problems for the candidates is maintaining public interest in the Nov. 6 elections when the primary focus of most is the threat of terrorism.
In New Jersey, 17 percent of likely voters surveyed just before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon said they were following the McGreevey-Schundler battle "closely." In a more recent poll the figure had dropped to nine percent.
The race is now hardly a blip on the radar screen. It draws little television coverage, and has not made the front page of the state's prominent newspapers since the attacks.
"This year's governor's race has just about disappeared," says Salmore. "Can you imagine a race where interest actually declines as the election nears?"
When asked what she expects the New Jersey turnout to be, Hamilton Township resident Peggy Nichols shrugs. She says she just feels "lost" and thinks a lot of other voters feel that way too.
"With all the anthrax stuff and the war, I feel like too much is going on to even think about," says the medical technician from the Trenton suburb where the anthrax letters spreading death and illness may have originated.
In Richmond, Va., a six-hour drive south, Bill Metzger offers much the same view of the governor's race between Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Mark Earley, the only other major political contest this year. A construction worker concerned about losing his job in the economic slowdown, Metzger says "everything seems messed up right now."
"I know who's running," he says. "But I haven't been following it."
Like Schundler and McGreevey, Warner and Earley have apparently concluded that blurring the issues, especially on taxes, will win more votes than it loses.
Earley, who resigned as Virginia attorney general to pursue the governorship, began the campaign portraying himself as a moderate. But in conservative rural areas of the state, he is now playing up his conservative credentials, including his long-time opposition to abortion.
In radio and TV commercials running everywhere but in more moderate northern Virginia, Earley claims Warner would allow minors to get abortions without parental consent -- a claim that The Washington Post says distorts Warner's position.
Both candidates say they would preserve outgoing Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore's popular plan to eliminate the state car tax even though state legislators on both sides of the aisle say Virginia can no longer afford to do it in the face of the economic slowdown and plunging state revenues.
A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed Earley narrowing the 14-point lead Warner held in August to about three points, a virtual dead heat given the poll's plus-or-minus four percent margin of error. But a Washington Post poll (10/28) has Warner still holding a comfortable lead among likely voters by 51 percent to 41 percent. However, the poll noted there are areas in the state where Earley could close that gap some as election day approaches. The Earley team hopes to engage President Bush to do some final campaigning, a move they believe will increase voter turnout among Republicans and undecideds.
Political experts predict voter turnout in Virginia will be low. Besides their focus on the war on terrorism, voters are less attentive to the campaign this year because they "don't see that much difference between the two candidates," says George Mason University political scientist Toni Travis. On the dominant issue of the economy and taxes, Travis notes, both candidates say they will not increase taxes, although Warner would allow a referendum on it in Northern Virginia to fund local transportation measures.
Travis sees the race as a classic confrontation between the old and new Virginia in these uncertain times with both candidates trying to shore up their bases. Warner is playing to moderate northern Virginia voters by stressing "quality of life" concerns like traffic congestion, education and safety, while Earley is falling back on old GOP issues like tax relief and limited government to solidify his standing with conservatives.