Merkt covers a lot of roadway as his campaign tries to gain traction

When Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham) officially kicked off his gubernatorial campaign on Oct. 22, it proved no awesome headline-grabbing event

When Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham) officially kicked off his gubernatorial campaign on Oct. 22, it proved no awesome headline-grabbing event just days before an historic presidential election.

But the 12-year veteran of the Assembly and long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination for governor said he made his declaration when he did because he was steamed over news about the way Democrats during the Codey administration managed a state fund supposedly dedicated to property tax relief.

Merkt believes that his money notwithstanding, millionaire Gov. Jon Corzine will present Republicans with a soft target next year.

“Let’s face it, he wanted to be Secretary of Treasury and didn’t get it,” said Merkt. “He’s running for governor as a consolation prize. And his wealth can be turned against him. I think you point out to the people that here’s a guy who spent $65 million to run for the U.S. Senate and $40 million to run for governor, and for that we got three years of misery and suffering and a declining economy.”

Merkt has significant obstacles if he wants his underdog GOP candidacy to go anywhere.

The comparatively poorly funded candidate hails from the same Morris County town as prospective establishment candidate, favorite former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.

Moreover, as he runs on a platform of cutting government waste and reducing debt, he derides court orders like the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) with the same vehemence as another rival in the race, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan – a veteran of the 2005 governor’s race who’s already built a statewide operation and is the recognized leader of New Jersey’s conservative movement.

“I tend to agree with Steve (Lonegan) that we need smaller government, but only with an audit of government can we make it smaller,” Merkt said. “As for COAH, I had the ‘get rid of COAH’ position before he did.”

On Dec. 15, he intends to introduce new legislation banning COAH. If he were governor, he says he’d stop funding COAH by executive order in addition to making deep cuts.

“It’s very easy to target a few specific things,” he said. “The public advocate doesn’t need to exist. It didn’t exist for a decade and New Jersey went along just fine. Okay, that’s minor budget item. But what about (billions) in education spending? Do you really believe it’s all being spent efficiently? I don’t.”

Trying to build name ID over the past three months, the self-described New Jersey nationalist and lawyer has donned sweats and jogging shoes and hit the streets in all 21 counties.

He keeps going.

But whatever his specific points, whatever road he runs in sneakers, Merkt knows it’s going to be hard for him to seize and expand territory if he runs against two better known and better connected men.

Fearing an outright Christie coronation, or at the very least a softly pedaled Republican Primary with only a handful of candidates, he admits he wants to see other people get in the race.

He even had a recent conversation with Princeton biotech millionaire John Crowley in which he urged Crowley to run.

“He’s (Crowley’s) hewn to the line that he’s thinking about it very seriously, and I told him the more competition the better, we can only benefit from having a stronger field of candidates out there,” Merkt said.

The assemblyman objected to the argument that a big GOP field would eat itself up in a primary, leaving one ravaged candidate to face the Corzine juggernaut.

“That’s nonsense, an attempt by political insiders to continue their dominance,” Merkt said. “They’re more interested in controlling the party apparatus than winning races. Each candidate has expertise. Lonegan has organizational skills. Christie has the law enforcement background. Of all the candidates , John Crowley, if he enters, would have the resources to take on a candidate like Corzine.”

Through it all, Merkt maintains he is the candidate with the most relevant experience.

“I have executive experience in the public and private sector,” he said. “I am a former deputy attorney general and bureau chief. I have had profit and loss responsibility and overseen budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. I know how to read a balance sheet; and I know state government – a trait that is hard to replace, particularly when you look at the Corzine administration. It’s been like amateur hour.

“Look,” Merkt added, “If your car breaks down on the road, who do you want to fix it? Do you want a mechanic, a brain surgeon or a college professor? I’ve been in Trenton for 12 years. I’ve been in the belly of the beast. I know where the vital organs are.”

He gives a nod to his beleaguered party in the aftermath of Nov. 4th losses, and the presidency of George W. Bush, almost universally perceived in New Jersey as a national nosedive,

“Probably one of the great as yet unanswered questions of 2009 is ‘How long can the Democrats ride an anti-Bush platform?” said Merkt. “I think (GOP presidential nominee) John McCain lost because he forfeited a huge amount of
support from his own party by acting too much like a Democrat. Obviously he had more experience than (President-elect Barack) Obama, but he never engaged Obama’s real weaknesses. He came across as a crackpot and was not a person we felt comfortable with. He selected (Alaska Gov. Sarah) Palin because she’s a woman. I like her as an individual and as a personality but there were far better choices than her. She had a very thin resume for vice president.

“And, of course, McCain got totally blown away on the money side,” Merkt added. Merkt covers a lot of roadway as his campaign tries to gain traction