In 7th District, 3 frontrunners battle for the 4th county line

BRIDGEWATER – The frontrunners like to call it a three-way race.

Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon), Summit Councilwoman Kelly Hatfield and businesswoman Kate Whitman each won Hunterdon, Union and Middlesex respectively in their quest to be the Republican nominee in the 7th Congressional District.

Tonight’s Somerset County Republican Convention will likely thin the ranks of contenders and give one of the frontrunners a solid leg up on the rest of the nine-person field.

With only the Somerset convention remaining in a district that encompasses portions of four counties, the pressure to secure the endorsement of this county’s committee is on Whitman, who lives in Peapack-Gladstone.

After all, Lance won his home county of Hunterdon, and Hatfield won her home county of Union.

Whitman campaign manager Anthony Attanasio called his candidate’s victory last Saturday in Middlesex important because it represented the contest’s "first unbiased field of voters."

"Middlesex was the only county line awarded by a committee that does not have a candidate in the race," said Attanasio.

But it’s also the county that forms the smallest portion of the 7th Congressional District – with the fewest Republicans: 7,460 of them, compared to 21,863 in Hunterdon, and 26,918 in Union.

The Somerset GOP has a 2-1 (24,666-12,797) edge over Democrats, and a victory here would be a big boost to any of the candidates – and hurtful to Whitman if she doesn’t win. Daughter of former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, she has the party pedigree and deep roots in the county.

Attanasio today played down the effects of anything less than a first place finish, and noted that what the other candidates may have in length of service, his candidate makes up for in energy and fund-raising.

"What we’ve seen from her on the campaign trail offers a small glimpse of what she’d be like as a congressman," Attanasio said.

Lance has some history here in Somerset, which his allies say could be significant tonight.

When he first ran for Congress in 1996 and along with John Bennett lost the primary to Mike Pappas, Lance came back to the county and worked hard on Pappas’s behalf.

Pappas’s campaign manager was Patricia Flannery, who is now mayor of Bridgewater, the town that contains the largest number of registered Republicans in Somerset after Hillsborough. Sources say Flannery has been working the county committee hard for the Lance campaign.

If Lance is nursing old loyalties here and Whitman is trying to match her mother’s old loyalties with her own shoe leather, Hatfield, meanwhile, emphasizes her home county strength as a jumping off point for the general election.

"I have the line in the largest county in the district," said the candidate. "It shows I am competitive, and it speaks to my strength as a conservative elected official with 15 years of experience. We’re the ones on the front lines and we’re the ones the voters talk to."

While a victory tonight in Somerset by Hatfield, Lance or Whitman would give that candidate two county lines, leaving his or her chief rivals to split one apiece, at least two candidates have pledged to drop out if they don’t win: Warren Township Mayor Victor Sordillo and former Hillsborough Deputy Mayor Chris Venis.

Released from what they see as the constraints of convention politics, Iraq War veteran Thomas Roughneen and Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks say they will continue to take their campaigns to the people for the duration.

"The voters on primary day are Tom Roughneen’s home turf," said Roughneen.

Marks, who was in Washington, D.C., today meeting with at least one pro life group and other conservative special interest organizations to stir financial support for his hard right candidacy, said, "The game has already changed. These several weeks we have participated in the insiders’ game that is the convention process, but I’m going after the voters."

In 7th District, 3 frontrunners battle for the 4th county line