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    By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 31, 1998; Page A06

    PRINCETON, N.J.—In many ways, the June 2 primary for the 12th Congressional District here is between the Democrats of New Jersey and those in Washington.

    National operatives crowed when Carl Mayer, a wealthy attorney, cited the legacy of Woodrow Wilson and vowed to pour his own considerable resources into his campaign. In an expensive media market and a Republican-leaning district, they reasoned, only a well-funded candidate would stand a chance of unseating first-term Rep. Mike Pappas (R-N.J.).

    "It will take such resources to make the case to the electorate that Pappas is too far to the right for the district," said a Democratic consultant, who asked not to be named.

    But despite Mayer's money, affable demeanor and kitschy campaign bus in the style of a diner, the campaign has not gone as planned. His primary opponent, plasma physicist Rush Holt, has garnered the endorsement of the party organizations in all five counties, and New Jersey Democrats are now openly skeptical of Mayer's ability to win.

    Democratic state committee executive director Rick Thigpen is prohibited from taking an official position in the primary, but he was less than subtle in his assessment of the race.

    "There is no question Carl is getting a lot of support in Washington because he is willing to spend his own money," Thigpen said, adding flatly, "Money cannot buy a victory."

    For Democrats, victory in a district such as Pappas's is crucial if they are to win control of the House. National party officials argue that Republican lawmakers in several suburban areas, from Rep. Vince Snowbarger in Kansas to Rep. Jon D. Fox in Pennsylvania, could lose because they veer to the right of their constituents. But the booming economy, coupled with Congress's light legislative agenda, makes it critical that Democrats choose the right person to shake voters out of their lethargy.

    Neither of the candidates here is garnering much attention at the moment. As a steady stream of shoppers negotiated aisles bearing whole wheat frozen pizza and echinacea supplements in Princeton's upscale Wild Oats market last week, they were largely unaware of the coming electoral contest.

    Susan Finman, a Democrat from South Brunswick, was undecided on whether to vote in the primary. "I'm so tired of the two parties not being interested in the country or in people," she said. "They've lost sight of why they're there."

    Bob Brown, an independent, said it was easy to understand why voters like him have not focused on the race against Pappas. "As long as the economy is going well and the stock market's performing, people are satisfied," he said. "People only start getting concerned about politics when they get hit in the pocketbook. Then they look for a scapegoat and ask why they're not getting their share."

    Instead of appealing to disaffected voters such as Brown, the battle for this suburban district is being waged in the retirement communities, where each neighborhood features expansive lawns and a clubhouse, and candidates make their pitches in the midst of mah-jongg games.

    Holt, speaking at his fourth coffee klatch so far in the senior citizen-dominated township of Monroe, became visibly animated as he profiled a district stretching "from sea to shining river" and talked about "kitchen table issues," including education and child care.

    As the seniors waited patiently for rugelach and brownies that remained under plastic wrap, Holt argued that Pappas has failed to reflect their views on issues such as guns and abortion. "He is not representative of this district," said Holt, 49, the son of a former West Virginia senator. "I would call him, maybe, 'Unrepresentative Pappas.' "

    Several members of the audience warmed to the theme. Bernice Freidman, who belongs to the League of Women Voters, called the freshman "a real stealth candidate" who failed to spell out his positions before the last election.

    Mayer, meanwhile, devoted his energy that same night to winning over the residents of Covered Bridge II in Manalapan. In contrast to Holt, the 39-year-old Mayer comes across as a charmer, confiding to a cluster of elderly women sitting on a park bench that his grandmother called him the German equivalent of gobbler for his tendency to snack.

    Aside from discussing his noshing habits, the former aide to consumer advocate Ralph Nader vowed to bring down the retirees' auto insurance and electricity rates. "He mentioned electric," Hilda Farber nodded approvingly to her companions. "That is just astronomical."

    Despite his success with Farber and her friends, Mayer is struggling to reach as many of the 16,000 Democrats likely to vote as possible. He has aired radio ads focused on gun control and is knocking on doors relentlessly.

    "Instead of grass roots, it's cement roots," observed the baby-faced candidate with a receding hairline. "Where's the public space to talk to people about issues in the suburbs? And the suburbs are the future of American politics."

    Whichever candidate emerges victorious on Tuesday faces an even more daunting challenge: convincing the rest of Pappas's constituents that they need to oust him. To win the seat that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.) calls "our best opportunity in New Jersey," the party must hammer away repeatedly at Pappas's record.

    But Pappas has struck back with a diner offensive of his own, holding 16 town meetings in diners across the district. He has avoided antagonizing labor, opposing a GOP plan to restrict the use of union dues for political purposes and supporting a federal government policy of paying contractors prevailing union wages. While Pappas earned an 89 percent rating from the Christian Coalition last year, this term's lack of votes on hot-button issues such as assault weapons can only aid Pappas in the fall campaign.

    "It is hard to characterize Pappas at this point as part of some larger extremist conspiracy, which is what the Democrats have been trying to do," said Amy Walter, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report. "I just don't see that message as being an effective one in 1998."

    Pappas has also raised almost $380,000 so far, far outpacing Holt's $152,000 but trailing well behind Mayer's $1 million. According to recent election reports, however, Mayer has repaid himself $400,000 of his $980,000 loan.

    Money will be decisive in the race even if Holt defeats his better-funded rival next week. Both state and national Democrats must help Holt amass funds to help him communicate with voters, his backers say.

    "There's no question, anyone who's going to get in that seat has to be in the three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar range," said Monroe Township Mayor Richard Pucci. "If it's not funded at that high level, it's not going to happen."

    Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.


    Race for the House: New Jersey's 12th

    The district is sprawling and suburban, with a comfortable standard of living . . .

    Demographics:
    Married couple families67 percent
    Married couples with children32 percent
    College-educated62 percent
    Median household income$54,630
    Median house value$205,200

    . . . and a history of voting Republican, though President Clinton took the district in 1996.

    1996 House results:
    50% Republican
    47% Democratic
    3% other

    1996 President results:
    48% Democratic
    42% Republican
    10% other

    1994 House results:
    68% Republican
    30% Democratic
    2% other

    Sources: Almanac of American Politics, New Jersey Elections Division


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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