"C'mon everybody!" the slim dark-haired woman exhorted the crowd gathered at the Harborside Atrium in Exchange Place. "Schundler for Mayor!" She paused, reconsidering her words. "Schundler for Governor!"
It was the only real slip-up at the end of a three-day statewide tour announcing Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler's run for governor. The 42-year old mayor trundled through towns like Freehold, Hackettstown, and Vineland last week, hitting all 21 of New Jersey's counties; then he returned where his political career was born.
"Boy, do I love Jersey City," said Schundler, as he took the podium.
Amid a sea of waving flags held by a rainbow coalition of youngsters, bagpipers in kilts and politicos munching on hors d'ouevres, Schundler laid out his vision: "I want to make this state a place where we don't take more and more power away from people." He hammered on now-familiar themes like property taxes (too high), education (not enough choice), and Welfare (work, not entitlement), all likely to be repeated throughout his campaign.
Schundler, 42, is lagging behind in early polling against acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, his rival for the Republican nomination in June. DiFrancesco rose to the position in January when Gov. Christine Whitman was tapped to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
That longshot possibility has not deterred Schundler, who continued to attack DiFrancesco as a puppet of special interests.
"Donnie DiFrancesco will not stand up to the special interests that have opposed real reform in New Jersey," Schundler said, as he kicked off his bus tour in Trenton Tuesday. "He is not his own man. He is theirs."
Schundler will forego public matching dollars in this campaign, but he has in the past raised millions of dollars from developers and financial firms - vested interests in this booming waterfront town. In an interview after the rally, Schundler deflected the question of his own special interest ties, and said his comments on DiFrancesco were not related to the money donated to his campaign, rather, to the acting governor's behavior.
"He's beholden to special interest because of the way he acts," he said.
In his speeches this week, Schundler spoke of teaching abstinence to children, of school choice - including plans for vouchers and charter schools - of lowering property taxes and eliminating tolls on the Parkway. He has advocated ending tenure for teachers and is staunchly anti-abortion.
He is hoping that conservative message will resonate with the Republican voters in the primary.
It's one tactic that will be crucial for Schundler, who will get little support from the Republican establishment. Former Senate candidate Bob Franks has urged Schundler to bow out of the race, and county chairmen have almost uniformly thrown their support to DiFrancesco.
That lack of support is more than just symbolic, as counties have discretion as to where, exactly, to place names on the ballot. Those counties will likely put DiFrancesco's name in a prominent position, lined up with other establishment-backed state senate and assembly candidates. Some Schundler supporters worry the mayor could suffer a similar fate as William Gormley, a man who lost the Republican nomination for last year's senate race. Some still blame Burlington County officials for virtually burying Gormley's name on the ballot - costing him votes in his tight primary bid against eventual Senate candidate Franks.
Who's Bret Schundler?
The mayor also will have to fight his lack of name recognition. A recent Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll showed Schundler well behind in a hypothetical race against Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, the presumptive Democratic challenger.
Based on the polling, the mayor would lose a race to McGreevey 43 percent to 19 percent. Thirty-two percent of respondents were undecided. DiFrancesco was closer, garnering 26 to McGreevey's 39 percent.
The no-name factor is a structural problem of the state, explained Monika McDermott, associate director of the poll.
"There's only a few state-wide positions," she said, and DiFrancesco got a huge boost with his ascent to governor. But it is a problem most candidates, like McGreevey in 1997, face.
"You basically have to run as a nobody," she said.
Running frequent television commercials in parts of the state and staging a bus caravan, John McCain-style might give Schundler some of that exposure he's looking for.
Bad news for Donnie D.
Working in Schundler's favor are some damaging revelations about the acting governor.
By all accounts, DiFrancesco had a pretty crummy week last week. A Daily News piece Monday exposed the acting governor's loan default and subsequent favorable $500 million contract award to a friend who had helped bail him out. That contract award helped develop the state's disastrous car emissions testing program. DiFrancesco denied any favorable treatment as a result of the help.
Whether voters will remember these February revelations in June remains to be seen.
Still, it may not be enough to push Schundler ahead - so he could be keeping one eye on the gubernatorial polls, the other eye on Jersey City.
Some aides had suggested he do just that. Schundler, though, said Thursday he had no plans to vie for a third full term as mayor of Jersey City.
"I'm not going to run for mayor," he said. "I'm going to run for governor."
The calendar will be the ultimate arbiter in the matter. Mayoral candidates have until March 15 to file petitions.
DiFrancesco campaign strikes back
While Schundler attacked DiFrancesco this week, the acting governor's campaign manager lashed out.
"The mayor's gotten to the point in his statewide campaign where he's all but dead in the water to win the race," said DiFrancesco Campaign Manager Charlie Smith, citing Schundler's low poll numbers.
He dismissed the mayor's platform of property tax relief.
"He offers no solution to address the problem," he said. "Property taxes have increased wildly in his tenure." Schundler said that DiFrancesco's camp was distorting his record and basing the assertions on a "tax holiday" and subsequent resumption of regular taxes that happened earlier in his term.
Schundler has repeatedly charged DiFrancesco with an unwillingness to debate. Responded Smith: "We intend to participate in the debate process with any candidate for the nomination."
If he loses a bid for governor and chooses not to run for mayor, Schundler may not be finished politically. The race for embattled Sen. Robert Torricelli's seat is only one year away.
Those political implications were not on the mind of 85-year old Vera Matthews, a lifelong Jersey City resident who spoke of her support for Schundler last week.
"I think he did well for the city of Jersey City and he'll do well for the state," the Heights resident said. "I think he turned Jersey City around. I tell you this as a registered Democrat."
Too bad she can't vote in the primary.