ROSELLE PARK, N.J. -- If President Clinton is looking for a political silver lining these days, as he should be doing, he has only to consider the case of Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey.
Four years ago Florio defeated James Courter, a Republican who ran a wretched campaign, and immediately brought a storm of anger down on his head by promulgating a $2.8 billion tax program -- after saying all through the campaign that there was no need for higher taxes.
The state blossomed with "Impeach Florio" bumper stickers and T-shirts. Opinion polls measured his approval rating plunging to below 20 percent. Two years after his election Republicans won control of the state Legislature by running against his tax plan. He was roughly as popular as Saddam Hussein.
But today Jim Florio seems headed for re-election to a second term Nov. 2. And what a Florio victory would demonstrate to Clinton and uneasy Democrats is that political resurrection is possible even from depths far more menacing than the president has faced in the turmoil of his first year in office.
To some degree, Florio's comeback is a function of the quality of the campaign against him. Although Republican Christine Todd Whitman is an intelligent and articulate candidate, her campaign has suffered enormous damage largely from self-inflicted wounds.
The outlook is by no means as certain as would be suggested by the published public opinion polls that show the Democratic governor leading by margins of 12 to 15 percentage points. Florio's negatives are still high enough, 40 to 45 percent, to raise some eyebrows among New Jersey political veterans. And he holds a huge lead among women voters, as much as 30 percent in a recent survey made for the New York Times, that neither campaign believes to be realistic.
But Florio has succeeded in making a virtue of the tax program that evoked such anger three years ago, telling audiences everywhere that he was willing to make "the hard decisions" and that the result has been three years of balanced budgets, a modest rainy day fund for the state and an improving economy.
Paul Begala, a political consultant who advises the White House and the Florio campaign as well, says the message is that the voters will respect an officeholder who makes tough decisions. "It's a hell of a lesson," he said. "Clinton is doing big and difficult things and people can take some heart and courage from this."
The lesson for any candidate, Begala says, is "maybe I can be tough and survive. Maybe I can strike a blow against chickenbleep politics and win."
What is not certain in Clinton's case, of course, is that he will be seen in 1996 as a tough leader who was willing to make these hard decisions when the Republicans will paint him as another Democratic liberal spender. Nor is it clear he will be blessed by an opponent with as many problems as Christie Whitman.
The Republican candidate came to prominence in 1990 when she ran here against the enormously popular Sen. Bill Bradley. A former local and state official with no big-league political experience, Whitman was viewed widely as a sacrificial lamb in that campaign -- yet came within an ace of defeating Bradley by exploiting his unwillingness to separate himself from Florio on that volatile tax issue.
But running as a vehicle of protest in 1990 and against Jim Florio this year proved to be quite different things. Whitman's campaign suffered from internal management problems that projected an image of her as an uncertain leader. Then she advanced a plan to reduce state income taxes by 10 percent a year for three years without providing convincing details on the spending cuts that would be required to make up the $1.5 billion revenue loss. The proposal was easy for Florio to paint as desperation politics, a characterization polls showed was widely accepted by the voters.
Whitman is not entirely out of the picture as the campaign enters its final days.
But Jim Florio is clearly in the lead and, if he wins, President Clinton may be justified in looking toward 1996 with less fear and trepidation than today's polls might suggest.