Conservative Voters Courted in NJ Governor's Race

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

New Jersey ( - As a self-proclaimed pro-choice Republican, former U.S. Rep. Bob Franks (R-N.J.) is considered a political "moderate." But with his double-digit lead in the polls virtually gone, Franks now must court a segment of New Jersey voters that GOP candidates usually take for granted -- conservatives!

Last week, Franks, who's running for governor, announced he wanted the Republican-led New Jersey legislature to push through a constitutional amendment requiring parents to be notified before their minor daughters can have abortions.

This and other issues supported by Franks probably would not be issues at all in the New Jersey race for governor if not for the strong candidacy of Bret Schundler, the lone conservative in the GOP primary race. Schundler made great strides against Acting-Gov. Donald DiFrancesco before DiFrancesco bowed out of the race, and now he is giving Franks some healthy competition.

"While I have always supported a woman's right to choose as defined by the United States Supreme Court, I earnestly believe that the sheer number of abortions that occur every year in this country is a national nightmare," Franks said, as he recently urged support for pending amendment. "By enacting important common-sense measures, the government can do its part to reduce the number of abortions," he said.

Schundler, who has been endorsed by New Jersey's Right-to-Life and other pro-life organizations, said he isn't worried about Franks' support for the amendment.

"It's about time," said Schundler. "I'm happy to have him on board. I welcome him. Now if we can get (Democrat gubernatorial challenger) Jim McGreevey on board, we can have a real happy family in New Jersey."

Franks' position on the amendment is now identical to Schundler's.

In 1999, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring that parents of unmarried girls under 18 be notified before having an abortion. Former Gov. Christie Whitman signed the measure into law.

But last year, the state supreme court struck down the law, saying it violated the equal-protection guarantee in the state constitution. A constitutional amendment, subject to voter approval, would bypass the court's decision.

Liberal Voters Leaning Right

By taking a conservative stand on the parental notification issue, Franks is attempting to give voters in the conservative wing of the New Jersey GOP one less reason to vote for Schundler, a motive the Franks camp would not deny.

Franks, a career politician, said he "sees the writing on the wall." For the first time in a long time, a conservative politician aiming for a high state office is gaining in the polls.

While battling DiFrancesco, Schundler sliced in half DiFrancesco's 16-point lead against him in the span of a month, before DiFrancesco bowed out of the race due to ethical problems.

Five weeks ago, a poll showed Schundler trailing Franks by 22 percent, with 28 percent of likely Republican voters undecided. But recent polls conducted by both camps show Schundler within 7 points of Franks and gaining fast, with less than two weeks left in the primary. It seems many of those undecided voters are leaning toward the conservative Schundler, and this has the Franks camp worried.

"He (Franks) doesn't want the portrayal that Schundler is pro-life and he isn't," said Stephen Salmore, a GOP consultant who has worked for both men in the past. "He's trying to have a more nuanced position than (strictly) pro-life, pro-choice."

"When Franks got in, there were a lot of people who assumed Schundler couldn't win because he was too conservative," said Carl Golden, a political analyst and former chief spokesman for former Gov. Christie Whitman.

Both Salmore and Golden also agreed that Schundler - although he's a conservative in a moderate-to-liberal state - is scoring with voters because he offers a clear message and a plan that resonates with voters.

"Schundler has a clear, very targeted message," said Salmore. "He's been more aggressive and focused than many people thought he would be. He's shown he has more of a following than anybody expected."

According to Salmore, "Franks hasn't offered a compelling message. He has talked about a number of issues, but he hasn't driven any one of them home. I don't think his outsider rhetoric has quelled the questions that he has been involved in politics for several decades."

Golden confirmed Salmore's stance. "Schundler has run a campaign that has been true to his message and has been virtually problem-free," he said. "Franks has been running like he expects to win and has been looking toward the general election, but with these poll numbers I would expect him to become more aggressive."

In New Jersey, the message is clear. The voter's key issues are property taxes, education, tolls, and the highest auto insurance rates in the nation. While Schundler has focused his attention on these points with detailed plans of action, Franks has been slow to confidently address these issues, which apparently led to Schundler's surge in the polls.
Problems Ahead

With less than two weeks until New Jersey's primary election, voters now have to sift through what has been an extremely negative campaign filled with accusations by both sides. That could adversely affect the primary winner, who will run against James McGreevey, an entrenched and well-financed Democrat in November.

When McGreevey ran against the popular former Governor Christine Todd Whitman four years ago, he lost by a narrow margin.

For Franks, even though he did well in the last televised debate, his message has not resonated in the minds of the voters. Voters in the state also know he is backed by the same administration which, for the past eight years, has run on the issues of lowering property taxes, tolls, and auto insurance, while improving education. After two Whitman terms in office and a Republican-led Legislature, voter priorities remain exactly the same.

Franks, since announcing his run for governor, has yet to make points on any of these core issues.

Schundler's problem is not momentum, but money. Franks already has outspent him and still has more cash available for the primary, whereas Schundler needs more money to get his message out in the final days before the primary.

Some conservative New Jersey Republicans say regardless of the primary results, Schundler's strong candidacy shows GOP voters in the state are looking for a change from the traditional "Tom Kean-Christy Whitman" pro-choice, liberal Republican candidate. They say there is room for a pro-life conservative as a state leader.