IN 1984, presidential candidate Gary Hart figured he was being clever when he told a California audience how glad he was to be there rather than in New Jersey. Mr. Hart lost the New Jersey primary after local papers bannered his comment. Negative portrayals of New Jersey, which tend to cast it as a mere shadow of New York - a mix of cultureless suburbs and decaying cities - are not quite as much in vogue as they used to be.
During Gov. Thomas Kean's eight years in office, the state's stock has risen considerably. Mr. Kean's presiding over what many consider significant educational and urban reforms, which coincided with an economic boom and political harmony, has drawn national attention. Kean was a contender for the GOP vice-presidential nomination last year and delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. With the state's newfound cachet, it's no wonder so many want to fill the shoes of Kean, who is barred by law from seeking a third term.
Leading the Democratic pack is US Rep. James Florio, a moderate who lost by a razor-thin 1,800-vote margin to Kean in 1981. Polls show him with a commanding lead, and he is looking toward the general election while studiously avoiding primary gaffes. His opponents are liberal maverick Assemblyman Alan Karcher, who backed Jesse Jackson in 1988, and Princeton Mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund. The primary is June 6.
The Republican race is far more open, and as the candidates try to distinguish themselves from the pack, they seem to be settling on a surprising issue: Mr. Kean himself. As popular as he remains, the governor is grappling this year with New Jersey's version of the economic troubles that have afflicted New York, Connecticut, and other nearby states. In 1986, the state had a $1.5 billion surplus; this year, it faces a $300 million to $500 million deficit.
The two GOP candidates who appear to be in the lead, state Assembly Speaker Charles Hardwick and US Rep. James Courter, blame Kean for too much government as they appeal to conservatives who dominate the party primary vote. The other candidates seeking to establish conservative credentials include W. Cary Edwards, a former state attorney general, and state Sens. Gerald Cardinale and William Gormley.
In spite of the primary's rightward tilt, if the state's politics are anything, they are moderate: Neither party dominates the elective offices, and nobody epitomizes this spirit of moderation better than Kean, who is ``Republican by birth, not by policy,'' says Carl Van Horn, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. After running as a Reagan conservative, Kean raised income and sales taxes, and state spending climbed from $7 billion to $12 billion. At the GOP national convention, anti-abortion activists booed him for his pro-choice stance.
Among the hot topics in the state these days are the extremely high property taxes, which have gone up 120 percent in the last seven years as the state's economy has grown. To reduce the burden on property owners, Kean proposes that the state assume county court and welfare costs; he would fund the change with a new tax on alcohol and by repealing a homeowner tax rebate. Mr. Hardwick and Mr. Courter oppose new taxes and want spending cuts instead. Mr. Karcher says the solution is to raise income taxes on the wealthy.
Equally taxing are auto insurance rates, second highest in the country after California's. The rates have doubled in the last few years, and most people now pay more than $1,000 a car. Courter has attacked Hardwick for the Legislature's failure to resolve the situation.
The state's growing environmental consciousness has candidates of both parties stressing their ``green'' records. Steven Ross, president of the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, says the relationship of traffic, pollution, and planning will be an issue. He says New Jersey's tradition of home rule, supported by Kean, lead each community to plan in a vacuum - without considering what occurs outside its town lines. As an example, he cites commuter rail stations where there is no parking. Also, he says, ``Because communities look for a maximum of corporate headquarters and a minimum of housing, people have to live far from work.''