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GOP ON THE LINE IN NEW JERSEY

When Olympia Snowe was running for an open Senate seat in Maine three years ago, Christine Todd Whitman, the newly elected Republican governor of New Jersey, came north to spend a day campaigning for her.

Snowe won the race and recently reciprocated with a day of work for Whitman, who is locked in an unexpectedly close race for re-election in Tuesday's off-year election. As two of the most prominent figures in the small coterie of Republican moderates, Snowe and Whitman are natural allies.

But their teamwork is a rare example of a survival instinct among Republicans from the Northeast -- and the Upper Midwest -- who are a distinct minority in a party their predecessors founded. They are close to being outcasts in a GOP that now finds its strength and leadership in far more conservative precincts of the South and Southwest.

Snowe's husband, former Maine Gov. John (Jock) McKernan, is a co-chairman of the Main Street Coalition, a fledgling organization of Republican moderates. Six months after its formation, its lone staff member, Mike Johnson, told me candidly last week, "We've spent a lot of our time contemplating our navels" and are still trying to figure out its role. Meanwhile, Whitman, a potential national superstar, struggles.

Her first election in 1993, along with the victory the same day of George Allen in Virginia, was an augury of the big Republican breakthrough in 1994. Whitman was chosen to give the Republican response to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union address, and performed so well she was a natural choice to be co-chairman of the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego.

It was Whitman's bold 1993 pledge of a 30 percent, across-the-board cut in state income taxes that encouraged 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole to make a similar 15 percent cut the keystone of his campaign. Even though Dole lost, Whitman's mixture of tax cuts and welfare and education reforms mirrors the national Republican message.

Moderates have a special investment in her, because of her support for abortion rights and her refusal to exploit the immigration or affirmative action issues so popular elsewhere in the party.

But as Snowe learned on her visit to the state, Whitman is struggling. Part of the problem is that perennial of New Jersey politics, the complaint about high auto insurance rates, which always works against the incumbent governor.

The other factor weakening Whitman is the presence on the ballot -- and in the three televised debates -- of Libertarian candidate Murray Sabrin, who is draining votes from her on the right. Sabrin has called for much deeper tax cuts. And he has somehow found a way to reconcile his anti-government philosophy with an anti-abortion position at odds with the tenets of his own party.

Because Whitman -- like President Clinton -- insists on an exception for the life and health of the mother in legislation banning late-term abortions, anti-abortion groups are urging supporters to vote for Sabrin or Conservative Party nominee Richard Pezzullo.

As far as I could judge from an afternoon of interviewing at shopping centers in this southern New Jersey area, Whitman's Democratic challenger, Jim McGreevey, is almost irrelevant to this race. The voters I met know little about McGreevey, a state senator and mayor of Woodbridge, who was the surprise winner in the Democratic primary in his first statewide race.

The race is simply a referendum on the governor. Dennis Ripple is undecided because he can't figure out who would really cut auto insurance rates, but leans to the Democrat because "Whitman is kind of a showboat." James Vandergracht believes "the governor has kept her promise on income taxes" and deserves another term.

Whitman has failed to draw more than 47 percent of the vote in any recent poll -- less than 10 percent ahead of McGreevey, with many voters undecided. That is a worrisome sign for an incumbent whose loss would be a heavy blow to her side of the party.

Washington Post Writers Group

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