Christie's secrets

Rumors continue to swirl around New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's withdrawal from the Senate race, including hints of a future role with George W. Bush.

Published September 10, 1999 5:30PM (EDT)

It started with the haircut.

When New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman began making public appearances with a new, Janet Reno-esque coif three weeks ago, people started to wonder, "What's wrong with her? Is she ill"?

Nobody in her administration would dare say anything on the record, lest they offend the most powerful woman in the state, but many acknowledged that the cut was a bit severe. "It's functional. Her hair is not a priority," said one campaign advisor, judiciously.

A congressional staffer tried to be more positive: "I like it! It's like George Clooney."

Last we checked, however, George Clooney was a man.

No sooner had Whitman unveiled her new look than she dropped her real bombshell: She was pulling out of the Senate race to replace senior Democrat
Frank Lautenberg, who is retiring at the end of his current term.

Whitman was widely regarded as the strong favorite to replace Lautenberg, and the Democrats had been scrambling to find a viable candidate to run against her. But all of a sudden, she was quitting.

Robert Arena of Presage Internet Campaigns, a consultant to the Whitman campaign, told Salon News, "She couldn't give 110 percent. She couldn't be the kind of candidate she wanted to be and the kind of governor she wanted to be at the same time. For her, being governor is the best job."

Still, the news came as a shock to most people -- even to some on her staff. When
reports of her dropping out began to leak before she made the official announcement, her office was flooded with phone calls from around the state and from Washington. While her campaigners stressed on the phone that "the governor is indeed busy running a campaign," the people on the other end of the line began responding, "Actually, she isn't."

When the press wanted to delve even further, Whitman's staff began elaborating on the problems of campaigning, especially the dreaded "F-word": fund-raising. Even though Whitman had already amassed more than $2 million (which the campaign will most likely return to contributors), her fund-raising schedule had her traveling to dozens of out-of-state events, some as far away as Arizona.

At a time when most people find it difficult to take politicians at their
word, speculation about Whitman's true motives was inevitable. According to Sherry Sylvester, the chief political writer for the Trentonian newspaper, the rumors run the gamut: "from illness to political scandals to scandals involving her financier husband, John Whitman, to marital difficulties stemming from an alleged fight in which John allegedly stated that she must run and she responded, 'I don't have to do anything!'"

While there is no direct evidence of ill health, the rumors that Whitman might be sick are associated both with the bad haircut and a recent trip she took to Nova Scotia on which no photo ops were allowed. One campaign source suggested to Salon News, however, that "she could just as easily have been meeting with George W. Bush, discussing a possible Bush-Whitman ticket" while she was out of sight.

There also has been talk in political circles about her getting a cabinet post in a Bush White House, but according to sources close to Whitman, the more likely scenario involves her seeking the vice presidency -- despite her pro-choice position and other political stands that have not played well with the GOP's conservative base.

According to one campaign official, since it now appears likely that Pat Buchanan will run as a pro-life third party candidate, draining away conservative votes from the GOP, the main challenge to Bush will be to capture the swing vote, the Reagan Democrats. If so, the ideal candidate for this effort would be someone like Whitman or New York Gov. George Pataki.

Whatever her motives for quitting the Senate race, Whitman appeared upbeat after her announcement, and began appearing on all the political talk shows -- indicating that she does not exactly consider this an exit from the political arena.

Whitman's national aspirations may hit a few roadblocks, however. For one thing, there is a disparity between Whitman's immense national popularity and her somewhat tempered reputation in her own state. New Jersey residents are more concerned about the state's soaring property taxes -- and her move to fund state pensions by floating a $2.9 billion bond -- than with any fantasies she may have about becoming the first female vice president.

And the general consensus among journalists following her candidacy is that, when all is said and done, Christine Todd Whitman is just plain tired.

While her upscale upbringing was far from a struggle, and she hails from a political family, Whitman's electoral experiences have been anything but comfortable. Her first statewide election was a 1990 attempt to unseat then-Sen. Bill Bradley, and she lost.

At the time, Democratic Gov. James Florio was facing a huge backlash from voters after having embarked on a $2.8 billion state tax hike -- the largest in American history. Florio's tax package proved disastrous to the state's economy, ruining the boating industry, among others. New Jerseyans were fuming, and took the opportunity to take out their ire on Bradley, whom Whitman charged had not done enough to stop his fellow Democrat Florio from raising the taxes.

Nevertheless, Bradley beat Whitman, 50-47 percent.

Whitman next focused her sights on the governor's office, and launched a bitter campaign against Florio two years later.

But Whitman was not a natural campaigner, and despite Florio's high negative ratings, she barely squeaked into office, by 49-48 percent.

In 1996, her re-election run was yet another reminder of her weaknesses on the campaign trail. Running as an incumbent, Whitman faced a serious challenge from
little-known Jim McGreevey, a mayor from Woodbridge. The governor barely survived, winning 47-46 percent.

With an electoral record like this (it's what some of her campaign workers cynically term "the Whitman landslide"), Whitman had to harbor some concerns about running for the Senate.

And there was still the fund-raising question: Did she really want to go from place to place raising an estimated $17 million, in increments no greater than $1,000? Probably not.

Whatever her motives, Whitman has made one group happy by exiting the race. From underdog to mighty dog, the Democrats now think they can keep the Lautenberg seat in the party, with either Florio or former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine emerging as their likely candidate. Meanwhile it is the Republicans who now have to scramble to field a viable contender.

All of which may signal the end of Whitman's political career in her home state once her current term expires -- unless, of course, it turns out that all that speculation about a Bush connection is true, after all.

By Victorino Matus

Victorino Matus is associate editor at the Weekly Standard.

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New Jersey Republican Party