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    GOP rivals start jockeying

    BY Tom Turcol
    11/09/2004
    by Tom Turcol on 11/9/04.

    With Gov. McGreevey's scandal-scarred administration coming to an end, New Jersey Republicans seeking to exploit the Democrat's political downfall are openly feuding over the nomination to replace him.

    The GOP infighting grew more intense yesterday, even as McGreevey was giving a farewell speech that refocused attention on the controversy that prompted his abrupt resignation and boosted Republican hopes of reclaiming the Governor's Office in 2005.

    But Republicans were too preoccupied with their own battles to celebrate.

    Two top contenders for the nomination - Bret Schundler and Douglas Forrester - moved yesterday to get their campaigns officially under way by Thanksgiving.

    Their moves were seen as attempts to preempt, or at least slow, the momentum some key party officials are trying to generate for a possible third major contender, U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie. Christie's allies are maneuvering to position him as the candidate best able to save the party from a divisive nomination fight.

    Christie, who has won acclaim for his political-corruption prosecutions, has not said whether he would resign as U.S. attorney to run for governor. His surrogates, however, have been working aggressively to keep GOP county chairmen and other major party figures in line should he do so.

    Forrester said yesterday that he was declaring his candidacy earlier than planned to remove any doubts that party officials may have about his intentions.

    "I don't want there to be any confusion created by this lobbying effort" for Christie, Forrester said. "I don't want people to get the impression that, because I haven't declared, there's this momentum building and the county chairs are falling in line" behind Christie.

    Forrester, a wealthy Mercer County businessman, said he would forgo public financing in the campaign and spend his own money so that his party could be more competitive if U.S. Sen. Jon S. Corzine became the Democratic candidate for governor.

    Corzine, who spent more than $70 million of his fortune to win his seat in 2001, is considered the leading contender for the Democratic nomination.

    Christie's principal surrogate, William Palatucci, said yesterday that leading Republicans had inundated him and others with calls encouraging Christie to get into the race.

    "From the calls I've gotten, I think his support within the party is very strong," said Palatucci, finance chairman for the state GOP. He said that in addition to hearing from party officials and activists, he had been "bombarded with calls from national media consultants very interested in working for Chris if he ran."

    Palatucci cautioned all sides to hold their fire, saying it was "premature and unsavory for anybody to be taking shots at fellow Republicans" while their attacks should be aimed at the Democrats.

    Fueling GOP discord is the push for a centrist candidate who could derail Schundler, a former Jersey City mayor, in the June primary.

    Schundler, a favorite of social conservatives, was trounced by McGreevey in 2001 but commands a sizable base in the party. He has scheduled major fund-raising events tonight and Nov. 29 featuring two national GOP figures, Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes.

    Fearing that Schundler cannot win a general election, many Republican leaders are trying to advance a single centrist candidate to oppose him in the primary. If Forrester and Christie both run, party strategists say, they would split the moderate vote and throw the nomination to Schundler.

    Forrester, who lost to Democrat Frank Lautenberg in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, has been courting Republican officials and activists for months. He has spread money around the party to candidates and organizations, and has run TV and radio commercials to keep his name in the public consciousness.

    With Corzine considered the Democratic favorite if he runs, Forrester and his allies contend that the Republicans must nominate someone able to spend vast sums of money on the campaign.

    While conceding that he could not come close to matching Corzine's wealth, Forrester said he was prepared to spend enough to stay competitive. "The issue of money is very, very important in this campaign."

    Forrester added that attempts to coalesce the party establishment behind one candidate would not guarantee victory in the primary. Citing Schundler's landslide win over the party-backed candidate, Bob Franks, in the 2001 primary, he said, "Anyone who thinks there will be anywhere near unanimity by public endorsement in advance of the primary does not understand Republican politics in New Jersey."

    As Christie and Forrester position themselves for the support of the state's more centrist GOP establishment, Schundler again is trying to mobilize the mostly conservative base that won him the 2001 primary.

    But Schundler's general-election campaign never got off the ground in a state whose voters are politically moderate to liberal on social issues such as abortion and gun control. McGreevey depicted Schundler as too conservative on those and other issues.

    Schundler has maintained that the campaign will be different this time around, saying the state's growing budget gap and overall mismanagement by the Democrats will eclipse most other issues.
    Contact staff writer Tom Turcol at 856-779-3854 or tturcol@phillynews.com.