FLEMINGTON – Ask a Bush-era Republican to name an American statesman he admires and more times than not he will invoke Ronald Reagan. But State Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) invariably gives a different answer to the question.
"I have self-identified with Dwight Eisenhower as an ideal to which I will strive," says the 7th Congressional District candidate. "Dwight Eisenhower brought people together. He was a uniter not a divider, who strongly believed in balancing the federal budget and not robbing our children and our grandchildren of their future."
The Eisenhower model has particular relevance now, according to Lance, who calls fiscal responsibility the transcendent home-front issue as America stares at a $10 trillion debt. The state senator further praises Eisenhower for extracting American forces from Korea when he did, and for not involving the country in other foreign wars, unlike his successors.
As for the 34th President’s departing warning about the hazardous effects of the military industrial complex, "I agree with that," says Lance. "I don’t want to over-estimate the importance of a freshman member of Congress, but again, I would strive wherever I could for that Eisenhower ideal."
On that last remark he considers a question about whether he would have voted for the Iraq War.
"I don’t know," Lance says. "But I will say this: I would have read the entire national intelligence briefing. Members of Congress had to go across the street from the Capitol to a secure location to read that briefing. A lot of them didn’t. Anyone who knows me knows I would have read the entire report."
For now, he does not advocate a date-certain for American troop withdrawal from the embattled Middle Eastern country, and stresses that further aid to Iraq should be in the form of loans not grants.
Owner of a Princeton University graduate school degree, who recalls how his undergraduate organizing efforts on behalf of Richard Nixon in 1972 hardly endeared him to other students, Lance has a patrician MO that belies his public school education and what he identifies as a middle class lifestyle on two-and-a-half acres in Clinton.
"I don’t live in Monticello," he says with a laugh. "My wife and I have a mortgage, and I drive a four-cylinder stick shift automobile with 115,000 miles on it. I believe deeply in thrift as a matter of state policy and I practice what I preach in my personal life."
Hoping to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-7), 17-year state legislator Lance possesses two organizational lines in four of the counties in the 7th district and claims most of the party’s establishment support heading into the June 3 primary.
"We can always raise more money," he admits, putting his overall fund-raising numbers in the neighborhood of $400,000 as he fights on radio, cable television (Fox, History Channel and CNN) and with mail pieces – a minimum of two per week since April.
"I think the single most important event for our campaign was our winning the endorsement of the Somerset County Committee, in a county where we were clearly the underdog owing to the fact that five of the other candidates in the race were from Somerset County," he says.
Predictably, Lance finds himself the most obvious target of the rest of what is now a seven-person Republican field. They say he is not a true conservative. They say he’s overly eager to represent environmental concerns. And they doubt his leadership qualities.
In one mail piece, businesswoman Kate Whitman, daughter of former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, questions how Lance could credibly fit the bill as a change-agent candidate for Congress after having been newly relieved of his duties as minority leader in the state Senate. Another candidate, Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, has the same question.
"For them (fellow state senators) to dismiss him in a bloodless coup and then get behind his congressional candidacy smacks of compromise if not hypocrisy," says Marks. "But the insiders are going to protect their own."
In a Flemington coffee shop a few blocks from his legislative office and catacorner to the Hunterdon County Courthouse, Lance doesn’t shrink from his record.
"I was honored to serve as minority leader for four years, after only two years in the state Senate," he says. "Serving in that position after only two years was unprecedented.
"Now I am the budget officer, serving after Sen. (Robert) Littell, who served in that capacity for 16 years before retiring," he adds. "My greatest love and interest legislatively are budgetary matters. I want to go to Congress to continue the fight for fiscal responsibility." He rattles off the main facets of that battle plan: make the Bush tax cuts permanent, scrap the death tax, discontinue the alternative minimum tax.
But Marks the self-proclaimed Reagan Republican complains that Lance’s environmental advocacy enlivens groups like the Sierra Club to quash efforts to develop domestic energy resources. He also excoriates the senator for co-sponsoring the Highlands Act as a blatant rejection of private property rights.
"I’m a strong environmentalist and the state’s leading proponent of open space preservation," Lance acknowledges. "Conservation is a conservative issue. The root of both words is the same. I have put out a five-point plan for energy independence that includes higher café standards, more drilling in this country – but no, not in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Reserve), and greater tax credits for energy efficiency."
The Highlands Act passed in the state Senate by a vote of 33-2, he notes.
If his conservationist – and pro choice – profiles arguably have general election appeal, Lance argues that fundamentally his record of fiscal conservatism will provide the most striking contrast between himself and Democratic candidate Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood).
"I will take my fiscal conservatism – that’s the most important kind of conservatism – to Washington where it’s desperately needed," he says, calling the 2006 crumbling of GOP congressional candidates payback for his party’s failure to maintain fiscal discipline.
Calling himself a leading opponent of borrowing without voter approval, he points out his longstanding opposition to state borrowing during the Whitman, McGreevey and Corzine administrations, and cites his opposition to the federal Farm Bill as an example of how he would try to check "massive giveaways."
There’s less than two weeks left now in this contest. Lance has been in a Congressional primary fight before. Back in 1996, he ran against Mike Pappas and John Bennett to represent what was then the 12th District. Pappas won, and Lance proudly recalls how he worked hard to elect him in the general. Win or lose, he says one thing hasn’t changed and won’t change.
"I’m a committed Republican," Lance says.