In the battle for third in Union, Merkt and Levine seek to lower expectations

Anything less than a win at Saturday's Union County Republican Convention and Chris Christie's campaign would hear echoes of Anne Evans Estabrook, whose 2008 U.S. Senate bid began to unravel after State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio beat her in Union County.

It would be similarly problematic if conservative Steve Lonegan, who has spent most of the last five years running for Governor, finishes below second place.

But then what happens appears less predictable, less solid, as Franklin Township Mayor Brian D. Levine and Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham) battle in the real contest of the day: a contest for third place between two other contenders eager to break out of a field that has grown to seven candidates for the chance to take on Gov. Jon Corzine in November.

Already, the Merkt campaign is minimizing expectations. The candidate is leaving the state tonight for a business trip.

"I actually have to work for a living," Merkt, a corporate attorney, told "I have to feed my family."

Campaign manager Chris Venis explained the Merkt campaign never expected to do well in Union County, where Christie, the former U.S. Attorney, has won endorsements from nearly all of the party leadership and elected officials.

Merkt has developed their campaign strategy accordingly, Venis say.

"We haven't done anything in Union County," said Venis. "We've talked to people over there, they've told us not to even bother coming, the deal's already struck. But that's the nature of the beast. That's why Union County was picked first, to give Chris (Christie) some momentum. Look, we still have four months to go in the race. We're getting our support from the people."

Then there's Levine, whose grassroots campaign arguably got off to a less than auspicious start when he unveiled a detailed gubernatorial platform in front of a room of mostly empty chairs in his hometown as an ice storm raged.

He doesn't discount the import of a third place finish.

"I think it might be a little bit telling," Levine said. "The other two gentlemen in the race (Christie and Lonegan) have garnered support and cash. It could be interesting."

But he also can't resist complimenting the man whom Levine supporters hope the mayor manhandles on Saturday.

"Obviously, I think Rick's a good guy," Levine said. "I want to get my basic message across. I know people will hear what I have to say, and I will garner votes. Hopefully, I can resonate with them personally."

For his part, Merkt, a six-term Assemblyman, all along has said his primary focus is talking about ideas. If he can nudge the frontrunner toward creating a more substantive Republican platform, then the long shot candidate figures he has accomplished something meaningful.

"We know who the anointed one is," Merkt said of Christie. "The question is if there's room for anyone else in the race. I have been concerned about the lack of specificity. Of course, it's a nice thing to say flowers bloom, and the sun shines, but it's another thing to make that happen. My point is, if you have the detail, why hide your light under a bushel?

"I don't know what Brian's purpose in the race is, but I assume it's similar to mine and contains something of the belief that people need a choice," the candidate added. "I like and respect Brian; I get along well with him. But I'm still the only guy who has experience in Trenton."

Dr. Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair State University, says the third place finisher makes a statement if that person is not Merkt, a conservative who entered the race earlier than Levine and built a little more media traction.

"I don't want to say it would be the end of his campaign if he (Merkt) comes in last, but it would be a serious blow to his candidacy," Harrison said. "If he's not able to secure this spot, you'd be hard-pressed to find many other Republican organizations willing to back him. This would be more about Merkt losing than Levine winning. A third place win for Levine may be a function of where he sits geographically as the Mayor of Franklin. He's not a favorite son but a neighboring son."

Better third than last.

In the battle for third in Union, Merkt and Levine seek to lower expectations