A college professor, a dentist who serves in the state Senate and a congressman-turned-lobbyist are vying for the GOP nomination for a U.S. Senate seat that no Republican has won since 1972.
Ramapo College professor Murray Sabrin, Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) and former congressman Dick Zimmer agree their party has lost its voice as the champion of limited government, low taxes and fiscal restraint. And each claims the experience and vision to reclaim that role and pick up a Senate seat for the GOP.
"I don't buy into that pessimism that New Jersey's a blue state and Republicans can't win," said Pennacchio, 52.
He calls himself "a proven winner" -- he won election to the Assembly three times and to the state Senate last November -- who can triumph again on his message of "low taxes, less government, peace and security through strength." He also has made energy independence within 10 years a cornerstone of his campaign, saying imported oil is "choking" the economy.
Zimmer, 63, points to his three terms in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 1997.
"I was ranked three times the most fiscally conservative member of Congress by the National Taxpayers Union," said Zimmer, who vows to cut spending and end "pork-barrel" politics -- "a game that New Jersey will never win."
"The difference between what we send to Washington and what we get back from Washington exceeds what we pay in property taxes," Zimmer said.
Sabrin, 61, who teaches finance, says he has "an expertise in money, credit, public finance that's probably second to none of anyone who's run for U.S. Senate." He vows to slash the size of federal government, phasing out the departments of Agriculture, Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development "for starters." He also would end the Federal Reserve's power to "manipulate" interest rates, which he blames for creating "speculative bubbles."
In contrast to the Democratic primary, where the overriding issues are age, experience and effectiveness, the Republican race features sharp ideological differences.
Only Zimmer believes women have a constitutional right to choose an abortion. Sabrin would allow states to ban abortion; Pennacchio would ban it nationwide through a constitutional amendment. (An in-depth examination of their views was published in The Star-Ledger of May 9.)
Only Sabrin vows to get U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by September 2010. He dismisses warnings the country would become a haven for terrorists.
"Why should the Iraqi people want to ruled by al Qaeda?" Sabrin asked. He said the Iraqis, whose nation is rich with oil, "have the resources to take care of themselves."
Pennacchio said Iraq must "step up" to the task of defending itself but Congress should not set a timetable for withdrawal.
"That war should not be fought by politicians, it should be fought by the generals," Pennacchio said.
Zimmer said it would be "irresponsible" to set a timetable for withdrawal without considering the judgment of military leaders and "conditions on the ground."
"We ought to extricate ourselves from Iraq as rapidly as we can" without creating "a failed state that will be a haven for terrorists," Zimmer said.
Only Pennacchio believes America can and must "rid ourselves of dependence on foreign oil" within a decade.
Sabrin called that "a dangerous delusion," saying world markets -- and less regulation of drilling -- can increase supply and lower prices.
Zimmer said Pennacchio's goal is "unlikely" to be achieved, adding, "I don't know of any expert who thinks we can be energy independent within 10 years."
Each has drawn criticism from opponents that is likely to be repeated in the fall general election campaign.
Pennacchio complains it is "just not fair" for Zimmer, while working as a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to take a tax break on the 24.5-acre Hunterdon County farm he calls home.
Ken Kurson, Zimmer's spokesman, said it is "exactly the kind of property" the Farmland Assessment Act was intended to preserve.
"It's been a working farm for over 100 years," Kurson said. "Without this law, Dick's farm would have been eight or nine houses."
Kurson said Zimmer pays $7,239 in property taxes on his house and the surrounding acre and $169 for the remaining 23.5 acres of farmland. To qualify for the reduced assessment, he must sell at least $500 of agriculture products; Kurson said Zimmer sold "over $1,000" of hay.
Sabrin has repeatedly criticized Pennacchio for a 94-page position paper, "The Nationalist Agenda," that he wrote in 1991. Among other things, it advocated acceptance of the RU-486 "abortion pill" -- a position Pennacchio has since disavowed -- and housing the homeless on closed military bases.
Sabrin calls it "a fascist manifesto," which Pennacchio regards as "an aspersion to Italian-Americans."
Sabrin also chose Ascension Sunday to tout his anti-abortion position to parishioners at churches in Pennacchio's backyard, prompting the senator to criticize the professor for using "a Catholic holiday to promote his own political agenda."
"It was beyond pandering," Pennacchio said. "To me, it was just too cavalier."
Sabrin has run unsuccessfully twice -- as a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in 1997 and for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 2000. In his most recent campaign he has aligned himself with challengers targeting Republican Reps. Frank LoBiondo (2d Dist.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (11th Dist.).