Republicans: is this it?

You can’t get anyone on the record about it, but some prominent Republicans aren’t exactly happy about their U.S. Senate choices

“Ambivalent is probably the most charitable word you can use for what people say about the choices,” said one Republican elected official who wished to remain anonymous.

Although two factions of the Republican Party are represented in the upcoming U.S. Senate race – Anne Evans Estabrook as the moneyed moderate and Dr. Joseph Pennacchio as the risen-through-the-ranks former Reagan Democrat who will run on the right – some in the party feel that neither has the combination of deep pockets, name recognition and charisma that it will take to beat U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg in 2008.

Multiple Republican sources also say that some county chairs are continuing the search and calling around to find new candidates.

The combination of weariness (from not winning a Senate race in 35 years), skepticism (at the prospect of having to raise millions of dollars), pain (from watching the promising Tom Kean, Jr. get bloodied last year by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez) and the fact that next year is a presidential race – usually bad for Republicans in this blue state – have left few candidates lining up for a chance at the coveted six-year term.

Congress is traditionally the first place you’d look to find a senatorial aspirant, but not one member of New Jersey’s Republican delegation appears willing to risk a safe re-election next year to run for a seat that Republicans haven’t won since 1972.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie has already taken himself out of the race, and Republican Congressmen Rodney Frelinghuysen and Christopher Smith have not given the appearance that they would even consider it.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni was courting support early on and had already earned the backing of a number of county chairs, but when Peter Inverso decided to retire, Baroni went for the State Senate seat – he won easily – and said that race would preclude a bid against Lautenberg. (Pennacchio, who was in the same situation but in a safe district, did not have that problem).

“I just see this big disconnect between the party and a viable candidacy. It just makes me think that the one thing that everyone agrees on is it’s really too hard to win in NJ as a Republican,” said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project.

The complaining about the candidates isn’t coming from the conservative wing of the party, however, who mostly seem happy with Pennacchio.

“My goal is to get the best possible candidate to beat Frank Lautenberg,” said outgoing Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, a conservative activist. “I’m not endorsing anyone yet, but Joe Pennacchio has a background in the legislature, which I think is important for a senate candidate.”

But what Pennacchio doesn’t have is a lot of money or a huge presence. Estabrook does, they say, but hasn’t demonstrated a grasp of issues or sparked the excitement needed to mobilize voters against an entrenched incumbent. She’s also never held elected office.

“I think people are being a little hard on both of these candidates. They both have a lot to offer and I don’t see Lautenberg as being this great politician,” said Sussex County Republican Chairman Richard Zeoli.

Mark Duffy, who started as Estabrook’s campaign manager today, said that his candidate has already struck a chord with Republicans, and cited the turnout of about 200 people to each of her two official announcements on Friday as evidence.

“Anne has been traveling the state meeting with Republican activists and leaders since early in the summer, and the enthusiasm has been building," said Duffy.

Pennacchio analogized his underdog status to Abraham Lincoln at the 1860 Republican National Convention, when he defeat the favorite, New York Gov. William H. Seward. Seward, Pennacchio said, had the money and name recognition. But Lincoln’s message resonated.

“We’ve all got to start somewhere… I’ve got a lot of impatience for people telling me what we can’t do – that’s why we’re at a stalemate,” said Pennacchio. “Don’t tell me we can’t win in New Jersey. Don’t tell me New Jersey is a blue state. Stem cell is a very blue issue in a very blue state, but with a little effort we were able to defeat it.”

Republicans: is this it?