New Jersey conservatives unsure on Romney

By Max Pizarro

State Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, Jr. and Republican National Committeeman David A. Norcross believe they discovered the second coming of Ronald Reagan in Mitt Romney, a lantern-jawed former governor of Massachusetts, whom the two New Jersey Republicans herald as a tax-cutting, pro-business nice guy straight out of central casting.

But a lot of ultra-conservatives aren’t sold on Romney yet, which may account for why the telegenic governor is limping badly in the polls with eleven months to go before the Republican Presidential Primary. In New Jersey, Romney faces another, bigger problem than just the skeptics on the starboard side of his party, as the shadow of 9-11 hero Rudy Giuliani looms over the political harbor like a modern colossus of Rhodes.

“This is an obvious and comfortable and natural place for Rudy to be,” admits Kyrillos, chair of the Romney campaign in New Jersey. “He has the stature and star power.”

It’s one thing to be a Boston fan. But to go into a tavern here figuring your lone Red Sox cap is going to crowd out the pin stripes in the room come play-off time would be a frightful miscalculation.

In New Jersey, the former New York City Mayor is polling at 58 percent among registered Republican voters, according to the latest data from Quinnipiac University. Sen. John McCain’s at fifteen percent, and way back in what could be called the third tier of candidates only in the most generous sense, is Romney with two percent, down from 5 percent in January. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has not declared his candidacy, is at five percent.

Kyrillos knows this, and doesn't sweat it.

He and Norcross say they are convinced they have a winner.

“He brings a special, unique blend of business, family and spirit.,” Kyrillos says of Romney. “He has a great personal quality that will inspire the country, the way the Reagan era inspired the country.”

The former Republican State Chairman says he remembers receiving the call from Romney in the fall of last year. Kyrillos was getting off the ferry in Monmouth County on his way home from Manhattan, when the radio announcer’s voice of the former governor, signature speaker at an event Kyrillos had held in 2004, could be heard on the other end of his cell-phone, asking the five-term Senator from Middletown to be his field marshal in Jersey.

Since then, “I have grown to just be in love with this guy,” says Kyrillos.

Now he and an equally charmed Norcross wait, and observe and at all times keep the organization on the ground running.

“Something may happen,” says Norcross. “If it does, we are going to be there. People were so sure voters were going to look at Giuliani and it was going to be a quick €˜no.’ I’m not so sure it will be a quick no.”

If Rudy stumbles, though, it won’t be in his backyard.

“New Jersey is Giuliani’s state as long as he remains a viable candidate,” says Quinnipiac pollster Clay F. Richards.

The test for Giuliani is going to be in places like Virginia and South Carolina, where the street-smart tough guy’s portrayal of a drag queen in a sketch now circulating on the Internet, for example, may simply bewilder Southern conservative voters.

Whatever happens down south, Romney’s primary standing is likely not to move much here, in Richards’ view.

“Romney gets the hardcore conservative vote in New Jersey, which is not big enough for Republicans to win in New Jersey,” says the pollster. “Even if Giuliani weren’t in the race, Romney’s appeal would be fairly limited because he’s not a Tom Kean or a Christie Whitman.”

Kyrillos, Norcross and other Romney supporters say so what.

Although New Jersey’s moving up in the primary process, the basically blue state won’t be a major player in what happens nationwide, they argue. They trust that Romney’s charisma and record of competence will ultimately nudge the candidate past a region-bound Giuliani and an aging McCain, and they don’t doubt that once the message gets out there, Romney will hearten the party’s base.

“Part of the reason I was susceptible to Romney is I was looking for conservative credentials,” says Norcross. “I think Rudy’s a tax-cutter, but to me Romney seems more aggressive with that.”

To date, the hard right in Jersey isn’t convinced.

Will Hollings, spokesman for Rep. E. Scott Garrett said Tuesday the Sussex County conservative remains undecided about who to support in the presidential sweepstakes.

“He’s still holding,” Hollings said of his boss.

And while others admit Romney has executive experience in elected office and business moxie as chairman of the 2002 Olympics Committee and venture capitalist, they are still worried about his flip-flopping on foundational conservative issues, such as abortion. Romney was tolerant of abortion in Ted Kennedy-country, then turned pro life by the time he went live on the national stage in 2006.

Bogota Mayor Steven Lonegan, who became the titular head of the New Jersey GOP's conservative wing following his 2005 gubernatorial bid, says right now Romney is saying all the right things on the stump.

But it’s just not enough.

“I have more respect for Loretta Weinberg than someone who has waffled,” says Lonegan, referring to the Democratic Senator from his home county. “I’d never vote for her, of course. But I respect that she’s taken one position on an issue [pro-choice] and stood by it. In this current Republican field, the front-runners have all waffled. The fact is there is a vacuum here. It’s every man for himself. We’re a conservative nation, and basic conservative values have to do with keeping down the size of government and securing our borders. The trouble is we’ve had years now of Republicans losing what they were committed to in 1994.”

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll is ho-hum in his assessment of Romney.

“He’s got a lot going for him,” says the Morris County Republican. “I lean toward governors.”

But finally Romney’s not delivering a conservative message with any degree of passion or urgency, in Carroll’s view.

“He’s Schundlerish in his delivery; long-winded,” says Carroll. “I really haven’t paid much attention.”

Lonegan says as alternatives to what’s out there now he likes Rep. Thomas Tancredo of Colorado, or Rep. Duncan Hunter of California. He acknowledges they’re not going anywhere. Former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee could “clear the field,” in Lonegan’s estimation.

“He’s solid,” says the mayor.

Then, of course, there’s Gingrich, commander of the Republican Party’s “Contract with America” siege in 1994, who could surely rouse the troops again, Lonegan says.

Other conservative Republicans, like former NJGOP Executive Director Brian Nelson, don’t see the need to wait for a champion.

“Mitt represents the closest we’re going to get to that ideal,” Nelson said.

And the Newt factor will be moot.

“I frankly don’t think he’s going to run,” Nelson says. “That means once you take Newt out of the race and you couple that with getting rid of some of these deep, third-tier guys, and the bulk of votes are going to go to Romney. If Newt runs it will definitely change the dynamic. But he’s waiting until Sept. 27th. He may not even make the filing deadlines in some of these states, and he frankly doesn’t have the ability on the stump to attract people to him.”

Like Nelson, Camden County Republican leader Jeffrey Booker found the Romney campaign to his liking after having flirted with backing then-Virginia Senator George Allen, who looked like the natural heir to Reagan until he unraveled in the general election last year.

“Allen intrigued me,” says Booker. “He was someone I thought had a chance to carry the conserva
tive mantle. Obviously that’s the real estate that Mitt will occupy. Fred [Thompson] and Newt will not get in the race. The fact is when you look at Romney’s record, and you see an accomplishment like what he did up in Massachusetts, where he created a mechanism to supply every person with healthcare – this is a guy, who if he makes it through the field, that Democrats must fear.”

In the meantime, Lonegan sees Romney’s record on health insurance as a blemish.

“I have a big problem with universal healthcare,” Lonegan complains. “I think it’s bad policy, and destined to fail.”

Booker’s response is that he’s also a conservative, and insists what Romney did to reform the healthcare system in his home state €” mandating healthcare for all Massachusetts residents, was good policy.

“I’m exactly the type of Republican Mitt needs to win over,” Booker says, “and there are certain instances where being a complete supply-sider might not work. We need to encourage people so they’re not a drain on the system by being uninsured.”

As for Romney’s pinball views on abortion, “Ronald Reagan signed the most liberal abortion law in 1967,” says Booker. “By the mid seventies he had flipped.”

Even icons can change.

But it's Giuliani's living legacy, not Romney's efforts to live up to Reagan's, that are prevailing so far and by such a wide margin – at least in Jersey.

New Jersey conservatives unsure on Romney