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Acting N.J. governor getting pressure over troubles

Originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 4/18/01
By Tom Turcol and Eugene Kiely

Despite strong sentiment in his own party that he withdraw, acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco insisted yesterday that he would continue his campaign for New Jersey's Republican gubernatorial nomination.

A number of senior Republicans said yesterday that there was a clear consensus that DiFrancesco, for the good of the party, should step aside because of allegations of ethical violations in his personal business dealings and ask former U.S. Rep. Robert D. Franks to run in his place.

Some key party members bluntly told DiFrancesco's staff yesterday that his campaign was in trouble and said he should consider leaving the race, according to Republicans familiar with the discussions. They were told that DiFrancesco had no intention of quitting.

Republican officials said that no one seemed willing to force the issue directly with DiFrancesco, and that, as of last night, they were resigned to his remaining in the contest.

The officials, all of whom have supported DiFrancesco in his primary battle against Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, spoke under the condition that they not be identified.

"I've been inundated with calls from people saying that he should get out now," one senior Republican said, "but no one wants to be in the position of delivering the bad news to the acting governor."

"We're not happy about it," a GOP operative said after being told by DiFrancesco's campaign that he was staying in the race. "We can only hope he has time to turn it around."

State Sen. Robert W. Singer (R., Ocean) said that he had received calls from "a number of Republicans" concerned about the latest disclosure, but that he was not ready to call on DiFrancesco to step aside in favor of Franks.

"Am I concerned? Absolutely. But in my humble opinion, it hasn't reached that stage," Singer said.

The Monmouth County party took DiFrancesco off its ballot line yesterday, making it an open primary.

Under a little-known mechanism in state election law, DiFrancesco has until 5 p.m. today to withdraw as a candidate. The replacement most talked about would be Franks, who nearly beat Democrat Jon S. Corzine in last year's U.S. Senate race and is the GOP's consensus choice to challenge U.S. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli in 2002.

The New York Times reported yesterday that a special counsel hired by the Scotch Plains Township Council said in a confidential report in 1998 that DiFrancesco had violated the legal ethics law while serving as township attorney. The report urged the council to fire DiFrancesco if he did not resign. The report criticizes DiFrancesco for failing to disclose to the council that he received a $225,000 payment in 1996 from K. Hovnanian Cos. and accuses DiFrancesco of trying to influence township decisions on property owned by Hovnanian and his relatives.

DiFrancesco, at a campaign appearance yesterday, dismissed the allegations as politically driven and said he was in the race to stay.

"I've talked to Republicans today. I have people calling me, encouraging me to move forward, to run, to not worry about this," DiFrancesco said.

The allegations, he said, are "not true. These are Democratic attacks."

Republicans fear that DiFrancesco has been severely damaged by the controversies. They worry that even if successful in the primary, he would go down in defeat against Democrat James E. McGreevey, taking his party with him in the legislative elections.

One leading Republican said there was nothing to the suggestions that national party leaders wanted DiFrancesco to withdraw.

"I am confident that nobody from Washington, either from the White House or the Republican National Committee, has pressured Don in any way," said David Norcross, Republican national committeeman from New Jersey.

The deadline for DiFrancesco to withdraw may be extended indefinitely if the June 5 primary is pushed back in a court battle over legislative redistricting. A federal appeals judge yesterday granted Republicans' request for a stay and set arguments for next week.

The new developments emboldened the campaign of Schundler, DiFrancesco's lone challenger for the Republican nomination. DiFrancesco supporters said yesterday that Schundler, running with virtually no state GOP establishment support, was now a credible threat for a primary upset.

DiFrancesco's campaign staff and allies in the party contend that voters have yet to begin tuning in to the race, and that, by the time they do, the controversies will be old news.

To help get his campaign on track, DiFrancesco hired Arthur Finkelstein, a prominent GOP consultant known for his aggressive campaign tactics. Finkelstein has been credited with rescuing the campaigns of Republicans such as former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York. He recently engineered the comeback victory of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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