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Conservatism Goes to the Mattresses
June 25, 2001

It's a Jersey plotline that's pure Sopranos: exiting boss names a successor, scandal sinks him, the enforcers nod to the next-in-line, and make the competition offers they can't refuse. Except for one -- a Jersey City upstart with no family loyalty and a different set of rules. When word of his challenge reaches the top, retribution is swift, but the massacre misses its mark - we think. Tune in tomorrow for the season finale.

Meet Bret Schundler, outsider. After Christie Todd Whitman traded the governor's job for a Cabinet post, the old don of Jersey politics, Don DiFrancesco, became Acting Governor and heir apparent till his shady past made the papers. Schundler, the Jersey City mayor already in the Republican race stood to inherit the windfall , but the GOP godfathers had other plans. They shunned Schundler and called up liberal Republican Bob Franks -- unemployed since Jon Corzine bought out the Senate seat. They dropped him into the race well past the filing deadline, padded his pockets with DiFrancesco cash, won him the endorsements of all but two of the county chairs, and delayed the primary for three weeks. Then they washed their hands and waited for November -- until the Party darling polled 15 points down.

In short order, the machine ground into gear. State employees sent pro-Franks faxes from the Secretary of State's office, county clerks played fast and loose with ballot position, and TV ads accused Schundler of "cheating needy children." But the pro-life, tax cut, pro-gun, school choice conservative kept standing. The next line of defense, the reliably lethal "right wing extremist" label didn't stick, and charges of chumminess with the Christian Coalition only helped.

In a final desperate move, the Establishment entertained the inconceivable, a win by the "unelectable" mayor, and threatened the party faithful with a November trouncing. DiFrancesco announced that he would boycott the polls if Schundler heads the ticket. But the insurgent still surged, leaving Franks running on a shaky platform of anti-Schundlerism, and the party fathers running scared.

The showdown is scheduled for tomorrow, but if the polls hold, Mr. Franks can apply for unemployment. Schundler will handily take the race he calls a "referendum on conservatism vs. liberalism," and the shock waves will reach far past Trenton.

Conventional wisdom coming from the Jim Jeffords School of Moderation says a conservative can't win in the northeast and that Big Tent Republicans are the best we'll do. But if the theory holds, Bret Schundler wouldn't have been elected three times in Jersey City, with its 6% Republican base, and he shouldn't prevail in tomorrow's primary. But a funny thing happened on the way to the polls. Half of New Jersey's likely GOP voters decided that cutting taxes is "very important," and 51% of self-styled moderates say they support more restrictions on abortion. Suddenly, for all the Establishment hysterics, the outsider finds himself squarely in line with the rank-and-file and marching on to victory. With his win, a lesson for the party that fielded a candidate indistinguishable from the Democratic competition and tried to outfit conservatism with concrete boots: Fuggitabowdit.

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