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Politics Mondays: RNC Chairman Barnstorms In Trenton by Deborah Howlett

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was in Trenton yesterday to raise money for the state party, speak to a group of African-American business leaders and put a positive spin on what has so far been a tepid campaign for the GOP nomination for governor.

"There's a very strong group of candidates," Mehlman said during an interview. "I'm not going to handicap the field. ... Ultimately what matters most is the agenda."

The brief visit by Mehlman -- he spent about four hours in Trenton en route to Washington, D.C., from Iowa -- is part of an ongoing barnstorming tour by the former White House political director. He took over as the national party boss in January, after managing President Bush's re-election campaign.

Mehlman met with about 20 donors who ponied up $5,000 to the state committee for the chance to take part in a "round-table" discussion at the offices of national committeeman David Norcross. He also spoke at the African-American Chamber of Commerce executive awards dinner at the Marriott hotel in Trenton.

The GOP is intrigued by New Jersey because of a surprisingly strong showing during the presidential election in November. In what was supposed to be a strongly Democratic state, Bush managed to gain 1.6 million votes, about 46 percent of the total. That was an increase of 300,000 votes from 2000, when Bush lost New Jersey to Al Gore by a margin of 16 percentage points.

"This is a state where there's a tremendous grassroots organization and tremendous chance to expand the party ... a state where there is tremendous opportunity," Mehlman said.

One of Mehlman's goals as chairman of the party is to build and broaden membership. He said he is especially intent on reaching out to African-Americans and Hispanics, two important and influential constituencies in New Jersey.

"The party of Lincoln is not going to be whole unless we bring in more African-Americans," Mehlman said. "What we're saying is give us a chance and we will give you a choice."

But as a political strategist who made his bones directing national field operations for Bush's 2000 election campaign, Mehlman also is interested in New Jersey's election this year.

"Obviously the governor's race is very important to us," he said, adding that he and his staff have had several meetings with state party leaders. New Jersey has one of just two statewide elections nationwide this year; the Virginia governor's race is the other.

Mehlman also said that while a primary election to decide the Republican nominee for governor might be "messier," it's a far better option than letting the party bosses pick a candidate -- a reference to the successful effort last month by U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine to clear a path to an uncontested Democratic nomination by wooing key county organization chairmen.

"A competitive contest for the nomination lets them market their message, hone their message," Mehlman said.

He said there is also intense national interest building in the seat Corzine holds, which is up for re-election in 2006. If Corzine succeeds in his bid to become governor, the seat will be open. If Corzine fails, he'll be seen as vulnerable.

"There is a tremendous opportunity there," Mehlman said. "It will be a targeted race."

Deborah Howlett covers politics. She can be reached at (609) 989-0273 or This article appears in The Star Ledger

Deborah Howlett

Monday, February 28, 2005

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