MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- There is a conspicuous irony in the campaign for governor of New Jersey this year.
The Republican challenger, Christine Todd Whitman, is suffering backlash against her plan for cutting the state income tax by 30 percent because the electorate is so skeptical of such promises that most voters -- more than 60 percent in one poll -- don't believe she intends to keep her promise.
But one of the reasons they may not believe her is their experience with Democratic Gov. James J. Florio four years ago, when he raised taxes $2.8 billion after assuring voters during the campaign that higher taxes would not be needed.
And now, while Ms. Whitman fights this pervasive skepticism, Mr. Florio is making a virtue of his reversal four years ago by depicting himself, as he put it in a debate the other night, as the governor who made the "hard decisions."
No tax cure-all
What all this suggests, of course, is that promising tax reduction may no longer be the political cure-all it once was. Ms. Whitman herself is well aware of the doubts about politicians and their tax promises.
"It's not just Florio," she said as her campaign bus left Montclair en route to Somerset. "It's what Clinton's done and George Bush, too, with 'read my lips.' "
But strategists in both campaigns here question whether any hard inferences can be drawn from Ms. Whitman's experience because her advocacy of the tax cuts was handled so clumsily. Edward J. Rollins, the Washington consultant now running her campaign, says, "She was put out there by herself" to make the promise without the proper support from leaders, such as former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who could have given her more credibility.
And she clearly suffered, as well, because she proposed the plan -- 10 percent cuts a year for three years -- without providing a detailed response to the question of where she would reduce state spending to cover the $1.5 billion revenue loss her cuts would entail.
The result was that the proposal was widely denounced as conventional cheap politics not just by Mr. Florio -- who repeatedly warns, "She's promising the moon" -- and his surrogates, but also by the press.
"The tax issue made her seem like any other politician," Mr. Rollins said.
The Democratic governor, meanwhile, argues that the voters are ready to make the hard choices, even for higher taxes, if they will gain dividends in the future. Asked what in the campaign has surprised him, he replied: "It didn't surprise me, but it surprised a lot of other people, that they [the voters] were willing to take the long view, to step back and look at this thing."
Since the initial furor over his tax plan, when his approval ratings sank below 20 percent and his political obituary was being written, he says the state has managed three balanced budgets, accumulated a modest rainy day fund and watched the economy begin to improve. It is a picture Ms. Whitman disputes -- pointing out that the balanced budgets are required by the state constitution and citing statistics that belie the picture of economic recovery painted by the incumbent.
But Ms. Whitman concedes that she has not yet effectively convinced voters that the tax cut is "part of a total package" that will create jobs, the issue she finds at the core of the electorate's concern.
Florio leading polls
The conventional wisdom here is that Mr. Florio is likely to win a second term by a comfortable margin. The most recent published public opinion polls show him leading his Republican challenger by 12 to 15 points.
But there are a few anomalies in the poll numbers that argue for some caution. For one thing, although Mr. Florio is leading, the surveys continue to show that 40 percent to 45 percent of the voters have a negative view of him -- figures that suggest that not everyone has forgiven him his tax increases. Ms. Whitman's negatives are only a few points lower, but there are more voters without a firm view on the challenger.
"People don't like him," said Mr. Rollins. "The critical thing [now] is making the sale on her."
As a result, the Republicans now have gone into an end-game strategy of trying to present Ms. Whitman in the most positive light to address weaknesses apparent in the polling data.
One problem is the finding that Mr. Florio enjoys a distinct advantage -- as much as 30 percent in one survey -- among female voters, a reversal of the usual picture when a female candidate runs. Ms. Whitman attributes this to a gender difference.
"Women are harder on women," she said. "They tend to hold them to higher standards."
But some professionals in both campaigns say Mr. Florio has gained an advantage because he is perceived as much stronger the crime issue, particularly in light of his advocacy of gun control and his sponsorship of a strict state law against assault weapons that Ms. Whitman questioned at one point. The same is true to a degree on his stance against drunken drivers -- a perception that the Republican challenger is attempting to counter with commercials in which she presents herself as a mother of two teen-agers who is obviously worried about drunken drivers every time her children go out.
There is also a question of personality and perhaps an element of class warfare in the contest between the former boxer and career Democratic politician and the Republican woman whose total experience as an officeholder was gained as a town freeholder and an appointive official in Trenton before she ran for the Senate three years ago.
Mr. Florio, 56, is a far more relaxed candidate than he was a few years ago, but even his advisers say, as consultant Paul Begala put it, "There's nothing warm and fuzzy about him." By contrast, at 47 Ms. Whitman is a candidate with bright personal force and charm as well as intelligence.
Ms. Whitman comes from a family of wealth as well as long credentials in Republican politics; her father, Webster Todd, served for years on the party's national committee. Mr. Florio likes to suggest she is a patrician who doesn't understand the plight of the common people as he does because, as he said in a debate in Whippany the other night, "I know personally what it's about."
"I find that offensive," Ms. Whitman said the next day. "When he said 'I understand the common person,' I wanted to lean over and smack him." Her money, she said, "has nothing to do with the kind of governor I would be."
In one sense, Ms. Whitman may be paying a price for her early success as a candidate. Three years go she won the nomination to oppose Sen. Bill Bradley, a Democrat so apparently invulnerable that she was regarded as a sacrificial lamb, a rich woman from the suburbs willing to take the fall. But as it turned out, she lost by only 3 percent although she was outspent more than 12 to 1.
But the inferences drawn from that campaign may have misled her into thinking it would be easier than it has proved to be. That 1990 campaign was conducted during the height of the furor over the Florio tax plan and Mr. Bradley stumbled by waffling and weaving on where he stood.
And now, just three years later, Mr. Florio has made his tax plan an evidence that he is a leader "willing to take the responsibility" for those hard decisions.