Republicans have held the 7th since Flo Dwyer beat Pete Williams in 1956

Because of his Hunterdon County base, Leonard Lance starts as the front runner in the Republican primary to succeed Mike Ferguson in New Jersey's seventh congressional district, but he faces a formidable challenge from Kate Whitman, the 30-year-old daughter of the former Governor, and from a pair of candidates from Union County.

Lance has two main problems: he's a horrific fundraiser, as evidenced by his inability to properly fund Republican Senate races after serving as Minority Leader for the last four years; and Republicans are worried that he lacks the ability to step up and run the kind of tough campaign the GOP thinks they need to hold the seat against Linda Stender in the General Election.

One Republican County Chairman, who asked not to be identified, suggested that Whitman might be the kind of aggressive candidate they need against Stender. He said Lance, like any Trenton veteran, has an attackable record on spending issues, and that Whitman could be a better fundraiser (she may already be) and more willing to go head-to-head with Stender. What happens in October when Lance refuses to go truly negative on his Democratic opponent? And what happens in October when Republicans don't see any cash on hand? Lance was essentially dumped as Senate Republican leader late last year because GOP Senators felt his political skills were lacking.

Right now, the focus in the seventh is on three contests: conventions for organization lines in Somerset and Union counties, and fundraising. Lance and Whitman each need to win one of the three. Insiders say the Somerset contest is particularly competitive between Lance and Whitman, with Warren Mayor Victor Sordillo also offering some strong competition. Whitman will remain strong as long as she dominates the fundraising game, but the support of the county organization in Somerset – long the bastion of Whitman/Todd power – would be a huge, huge help.

Union County is shaping up to be a contest between Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks and former Summit Councilwoman Kelly Hatfield. Marks, a protégé of former Governor Donald DiFrancesco, has positioned himself as the conservative candidate in the race and has loaned his campaign a reported $75,000. Hatfield, who isn't raising as much money, is concentrating on local endorsements in Union County, and has the support of Assemblymen Jon Bramnick and Eric Munoz. The conventional wisdom is that Hatfield would drop out if she doesn't win the Union Convention (and there are few signs that she can raise the money to sustain a primary even if she is on the Union County line), and that Marks, staking his turf as the most conservative candidate in a GOP primary, is in the race to stay.

Republicans have held the 7th since Flo Dwyer beat Pete Williams in 1956