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NJ.Com - "A Straight Arrow In A Field of Daggers"

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NJ.Com - "A Straight Arrow In A Field of Daggers"

A few weeks ago, against his wishes, Sen. Leonard Lance was unceremoniously dumped as the Republican leader because he was not combative enough.

Sen. Tom Kean, it turned out, had been working for months behind the scenes to engineer this little coup. And Lance was the last to know.

Most politicians would plot revenge. But if you're looking for even a whiff of vindictiveness in Lance, you will never find it.

"Absolutely not," Lance says. "I support the new leader."

He doesn't loosen his tie in public. His silver hair is always neatly parted. He uses the word "whom" whenever it's grammatically correct.

And now he is running for Congress on a platform that seems to perfectly match the wealthy 7th District -- he's a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, and an avid environmentalist.

"He is probably the strongest environmentalist in the Legislature," says Jeff Tittel, head of the state's chapter of the Sierra Club.

Lance faces what will likely be a crowded primary field, with Kate Whitman, the former governor's daughter, as his best known opponent.

If he does wind up winning, he will be a terrible misfit in modern Washington.

He is always civil, and likes to find common ground, as he did when he helped broker the Highlands Protection Act, the most significant piece of environmental legislation in a decade.

He is a stickler for fiscal integrity. He opposed former Gov. Christie Whitman's scheme to fund the state pension system with borrowed money, a move that cost him the chairmanship of the budget committee. And he sued when former Gov. James E. McGreevey borrowed money to finance operating costs, a practice that's now banned forever.

"I am an Eisenhower Republican," Lance says.

Even the 1950s may not even be quite right. Others say Lance belongs even further back in time.

"When you think of members of Congress 200 years ago, you think of Leonard Lance holding a quill pen," says Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole. "He's almost too good for this business."

That was meant as a compliment. But it also points to Lance's chief weakness as a political player. He lacks edge. He often fails to draw pointed distinctions. His Republican colleagues felt he didn't battle hard enough to raise money and recruit new candidates.

"A minority leader has to be a wartime general," says Tom Wilson, the state GOP chairman. "And that's not his disposition. He thinks first about policy, not about politics."

And while Lance gets love from environmentalists, his support for the Highlands Preservation Act angered many people in his district, including the builders who play a key role in financing political campaigns.

But Lance has no regrets.

"We need to have a better system to compensate landowners over time," Lance says. "But Governor McGreevey was right about the Highlands. I know people don't want to mention his name."

There he goes again. Being nice to the other side.

Lance is pro-choice and favors keeping the Bush tax cuts in place. He wants controls on carbon emissions to combat global warming. He's squishy on Iraq, opposing a strict timetable, but saying troops should be removed on a steady "glide path."

Two years ago, Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Stender came within two points of knocking off the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson, whose opposition to abortion rights and weak environmental record made him a ripe target in New Jersey.

Stender is back. And the national Democrats say they will funnel more money into the race this time.

But Lance may be tougher to beat, if he makes it to the general election. Especially if Democrats in Trenton spend the next year raising tolls and taxes.

"It will be an election about issues," says Lance.

They all say that, of course. But in this case, it is no doubt true.

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