Pennacchio gets frontrunner status — for now

Through the various twists and turns of the Republican U.S. Senate race, so far there has only been one constant: Joe Pennacchio.

Over the summer, when Pennacchio announced that he was considering a run for the Senate seat, businesswoman Anne Estabrook and conservative Assemblyman Mike Doherty were also exploring the possibility. Since then, Estabrook and Doherty have dropped out, leading to a number of names floated and two new candidates: Goya heir Andrew Unanue and Ramapo College finance professor Murray Sabrin.

But Unanue, who was dubbed the favorite virtually the moment he stepped into the race last week, has suffered untold damage from several revelations about his personal life, business experience and residency. Meanwhile, Sabrin’s sometimes damaging attacks have stopped targeting Pennacchio in favor of Unanue. But Pennacchio has been shoring up his support from county organizations, while the controversy surrounding his 1991 writing called The Nationalist Agenda that emerged earlier this month has become yesterday’s news.

Pharmaceutical executive John Crowley would have been a formidable candidate, and many observers say he could have easily cleared the field. But his decision not to run this morning has left Pennacchio as, arguably, the man to beat in the June primary.

“I think Pennacchio is in the best position,” said Fairleigh Dickinson University pollster and political science professor Peter Woolley.

With his win at the Middlesex Republican convention yesterday, Pennacchio collected another county line. He already had the line in Passaic, Bergen, Hunterdon and Union Counties, along with hometown status in Morris and the fierce allegiance of its Republican Chairman, John Sette.

Morris County does not award a party line but consistently turns out the largest number of Republican primary voters in the state.

Without even setting foot in New Jersey, Unanue has picked up support from some important Republican Counties: Ocean, Monmouth and Cape May, owing at least partly to his ability to self-fund. And he could win the endorsement of the Salem County Republican Party tonight.

But to Woolley, the news stemming from an intra-family business dispute at Goya four years ago that ousted him as Chief Operating Officer, along with the fact that he doesn’t currently live in New Jersey, has canceled out that early support.

“He has the money to run a campaign, but I think that’s just not enough,” he said. “The fact that he has those kinds of resources is on the surface attractive enough that a few county organizations were willing on faith to give him the endorsement, but I don’t think that run can possibly continue with this news having been so unflattering.”

Sabrin won the Gloucester County line two weeks ago, but has alienated some Republicans with his call to run his own slate of candidate for every office in every county.

When Unanue first entered the race, he was the automatic establishment favorite, and his lack of governmental experience was actually used as a selling point – that his opponents wouldn’t have a record to criticize.

To Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project, Pennacchio now stands to benefit – at least in the primary – from his legislative experience.

“He has been elected to office, so he’s genuinely known to 200,000 people that he represents in that Assembly district, and is known to other people in the legislature for whatever that counts,” she said.

As for Unanue, Reed said:

“It would be different if the first thing people knew about him would be that he stood on the steps of the Goya Foods business and made his announcement and was recognized as a corporate leader of a firm that that made its commitment to New Jersey,” she said.

Instead, Unanue’s campaign announcement came from Vial, Colo, where he remains on a post-Easter ski trip with his father and siblings.

“This way it sounds like a joke…. At this late date first impressions count for a lot,” added Reed.

But Unanue’s campaign staff insist that conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to this campaign.

“Andy is not a typical candidate – he’s a businessman, not a politician or a career candidate,” said Unanue campaign manager Mark Duffy. “We, and every county GOP organization that has awarded their organizational line since Andy got into the race, are confident that Andy is the best Republican candidate to defeat Frank Lautenberg and to effectively represent the economic interests of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate.”

And Sabrin doesn’t want Pennacchio’s 1991 writings to disappear from the public debate.

“When Republican voters have the opportunity to contrast Murray Sabrin’s three plus decades of conservative leadership with the author of a fascist manifesto and a slick New York City playboy, we’re confident they will choose Murray Sabrin to represent them as their candidate U.S. Senate.”

To hear Pennacchio’s camp tell it, the numbers alone show that their candidate deserves frontrunner status.

Pennacchio Campaign Manager Dan Gallic has done his own analysis on the power of the county lines that Pennacchio has won so far. Based on statewide voting patterns from the 2002 Senate primary and the 2005 gubernatorial primary, Gallic said that, with the county lines he’s already won, Pennacchio will get 53% of the vote.

“The key here is that Passaic, Union, Hunterdon — those are very strong lines,” he said. “Add that fact into a very heavy turnout for the seventh district, and you can see it definitely bodes well for Joe.”

Pennacchio, for his part, said that taking his case directly to the people has paid off, noting that he’s been knocking on doors everywhere – even traditionally Democratic cities like Newark.

“I’ve gone to the people and they’re responding,” he said.

But if this race remains as volatile as it has been for the last two weeks, any hard won frontrunner status may not last longer than a couple of hours.

Pennacchio gets frontrunner status — for now