TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - She would love to be known primarily as a tax-cutter,but Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey cannot shake free from the divisiveeffects of the abortion debate within the Republican Party. Her support of abortion rights - particularly her veto of legislation tooutlaw the operation critics call "partial-birth abortion" - dominatesdiscussion about her chances of being tapped by fellow Gov. George W. Bushas his vice presidential running mate. "The right fringe, unfortunately, care more about one issue than they careabout winning the presidency, and they are willing to torpedo the ability ofthe party to shape the agenda of this country for the 21st century,"Whitman, 53, said in an interview. "Because they judge people by one issue - and not always accurately on eventhat one issue - they are going to say some pretty nasty stuff, and theyhave been," she said. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg is among those who believe Whitman couldharm Bush's chances by causing internal strife that Republicans can illafford in their quest to recapture the White House. "The Republican right would go absolutely bananas if Whitman werenominated," Rothenberg said. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., an anti-abortion activist in Congress, saidsimply, "It is just not going to happen." A one-time county legislator, daughter of two rock-ribbed Republicans whoheld prominent roles in the party in New Jersey and nationally, Whitmanburst into the headlines in 1990 by nearly defeating Democratic Sen.
BillBradley. Building on her strong showing in that race, she ran for governor in 1993promising a 30 percent income tax cut. Her victory over Democrat Jim Florio,the incumbent, made Whitman the Garden State's first female governor. She moved quickly to fulfill her campaign pledge, and her office says shehas enacted 37 separate tax cuts since taking office in 1994. Whitman has also made land preservation and education top priorities,establishing academic standards for public schools and proposing a 10-yearplan to save 1 million acres of open space and farmland in the nation's mostdensely populated state. Still, she only narrowly won a second four-year term in 1997, hurt in partby the campaign of a Libertarian candidate who emphasized that he was theonly abortion opponent in the race. The state constitution bars her from seeking a third term. Whitman's star was at its height in the Republican Party four years ago. Oft-mentioned as possible running mate for Bob Dole, Whitman was viewed as awoman who could break the party's glass ceiling as a member of the nationalticket. In the end, she was named co-chair of the San Diego convention asJack Kemp got the running-mate prize. The following year, the Republican-controlled New Jersey Legislature passeda bill to outlaw the late-term abortion procedure that foes callpartial-birth abortion. Whitman vetoed it and advocated her own version, which included a clausepermitting the procedure if the mother's health was at stake. Republicanlawmakers voted to override the veto, with support from some Democrats.
As for her vice-presidential chances this year, Republican political analystSteve Salmore, formerly of Rutgers University, said Whitman has become toomuch of a a lightning rod for anti-abortion factions - as shown when GaryBauer took potshots at her during debates in New Hampshire. "It would make that issue a major issue of division in the convention. Idon't think George Bush needs that," Salmore said. Whitman herself has complicated the issue. The Legislature last year passed a bill requiring doctors to notify parentsbefore performing abortions on minors. Whitman signed it, saying it was acommon-sense provision supported by the public. She denied she was trying to appease anti-abortion groups, and in fact shedid not. But she also alienated abortion-rights advocates who had seen heras something of a hero within the ranks of the GOP. "She had an impressive record on choice up until this situation with theparental involvement bill," said Nina Miller, director of PlannedParenthood's political branch, the "Action Fund." "Nationally, it didn't make any pro-life groups warm up to her," Millersaid, "and it only hurt her support among the pro-choice groups."