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In DiFrancesco's Brief Tenure, an Abundance of Criticism

Originally appeared in the New York Times on Friday, March 30, 2001.

TRENTON, March 29
It was supposed to be a lot easier than this.

Eight weeks into what seemed an easy glide toward the November elections, New Jersey Republicans are worrying that their putative standard-bearer, Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, could turn the conventional wisdom about the advantages of incumbency on its head.

Mr. DiFrancesco, who took office Feb. 1, endured a steady barrage of criticism as new details emerged about his past business practices while president of the State Senate. Then, just as he hoped to move past the worst of that scrutiny by revealing a huge amount of information on his personal finances and private law clients, he suffered the deepest wound of his brief tenure, and a self-inflicted one at that: the disintegration this week of his selection for state treasurer.

Outwardly, members of the Republican state infrastructure remain solidly behind Mr. DiFrancesco. "There are no cracks in the wall," said David Von Savage, the party chairman in Cape May County.

But an air of danger, if not yet doom and gloom, has nonetheless begun to suffuse the halls of power here, where Republicans want to extend their decade-long grip on the Assembly and Senate, but need a strong standard-bearer at the top of the ticket to do so.

"The people who you'd expect to be cynical, are cynical," said a Republican consultant, describing the mood among party insiders. "The people you'd expect to be cheerleaders -- the young kids, the rah-rah field directors -- are cynical."

It has, after all, been a tough two months. Mr. DiFrancesco had hardly warmed the governor's leather chair before reporters delving into his financial background turned up two questionable deals in which he received personal financial assistance from those who could benefit from his influence. The first involved a few friends -- two of them commissioners on state authorities -- who lent him $575,000 to pay off a defaulted bank loan. The second involved a $225,000 payment from the state's largest home builder, which Mr. DiFrancesco used to pay off a legal judgment against him.

Concerned that yet another shoe would drop, Mr. DiFrancesco's strategy group of 75 or so advisers and fund-raisers regrouped at the governor's mansion, three weeks ago. "They told us all the bad stuff is out; there will be no more," said one person who attended.

Then, on March 19, Mr. DiFrancesco nominated Isabel Miranda, an old friend from his hometown of Scotch Plains, N.J., as state treasurer. The nomination blew up in his face this week when it was reported that she had been fired from a job at Citibank in 1996. She also refused to quit her job at a financial house that does business with the state Treasury Department.

The conflict of interest forced Ms. Miranda to withdraw her nomination on Wednesday. But in the eyes of many, Mr. DiFrancesco hurt himself by initially insisting that Republican state senators ram her appointment through the confirmation process.

"How did he not realize it was going to come out?" said David P. Rebovich, a professor at Rider University who follows state politics. "The fact that he seems to be caught off guard and set in a tizzy by these things is perhaps as disturbing as the things themselves."

Whether the title of acting governor is on balance a blessing or curse, Mr. DiFrancesco has other advantages to provide consolation. To much of the Republican organization, his primary opponent, Mayor Bret D. Schundler of Jersey City, is too extreme a conservative on matters like abortion and gun control to be able to win a general election in the moderate-to-Democratic state, and thus does not represent a viable alternative.

Former Representative Bob Franks, a Republican, appears to have set his sights on challenging Senator Robert G. Torricelli next year -- though the thought apparently has occurred to more than one uneasy follower of Mr. DiFrancesco's that Mr. Franks would not refuse to come to the aid of his party if begged.

That thought alone is troubling to Mr. DiFrancesco's supporters. "Too many people are talking about what-ifs," said one senior Republican official.

But those loyalists are also mindful that there are many days between now and November.

"The last two public polls to come out, Quinnipiac and Gannett, have a statistical dead heat between Jim McGreevey and our acting governor, Don DiFrancesco," said Charlie Smith, Mr. DiFrancesco's campaign manager. "That is a very strong position for any Republican in the state of New Jersey at this time of year."

But Mr. Smith said the critical media coverage would quickly fade away. "And ultimately, when voters are making decisions in the month of November, these stories are long forgotten."

For the moment, however, possession of the governor's office seems not all it was cracked up to be.

Senator John O. Bennett, who hopes to succeed Mr. DiFrancesco as Senate president, said, "The reality is that the negative stories to date have certainly diminished any advantage we'd expected to have from being the incumbent."

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