If 1978 is to be recorded as Year 1 of the tax revolt era, Jeffrey Bell should be catching on with New Jersey voters as Proposition 13 captured the hearts of Californians.
"California had Proposition 13. New Jersey has Jeff Bell," is one of Bell's slogans in a U.S. Senate campaign rooted in his fervent advocacy of a 30 percent cut in personal income tax rates. But a month before the Nov.7 election day. New Jersey's voters don't seem to be buying.
If Bell, 34, who had never before run for public office, wins, his upset victory will affect the national political debate for years.
It would give new strength to the presidential plans of Rep. Jack Kemp (R.N.Y.), who is one author of the sweeping tax cut Bell is presenting to New Jersey voters and would bring into politics other conservatives who will try to follow Bell's road to office.
In Bell's way is Bill Bradley, the former New York Knick, Rhodes scholar, all-America at Princeton, and evidence that New Jersey's predominantly Democratic electorate is not flocking to Bell's tax crusade banner.
Democrat Bradley leads Republican Bell 49 percent to 26 percent with 27 percent undecided, according to a poll released last week by Rutger's Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Bell knows he is running from behind against the better known Bradley, but points to his primary upset of Sen. Clifford Case (R.N.J.) and says that with a month to go "we're pulling up on schedule." But the Eagleton Poll finds that Bell's tax cut message is not reaching voters, and Bell concedes that "if I can't get across that the tax rates are counerproductive, I've lost."
Almost equal numbers of people answering the poll named Bradley and Bell when asked which one would do a better job cutting taxes, and only 10 percent called tax cuts the most important issue in the Senate campaign.
At the 112-alley Edison Lanes recently Bell's problems were obvious.
A crowd intent on its bowling league matches was delighted to turn away from the alleys for a few moments to shake Bradley's hand.Bradley is a star, a familiar face and an autograph worth having. Teen-age girls don't squeal for Bell.
"He's what every mother wants her son to grow up to be," said one man who is working against Bradley. "He's a magnet. He creates genuine excitement," says Peter Hart, who is polling for the Bradley Campaign.
"He's a nice-looking dude," said one bowler to her friend as Bradley moved by at the Edison Lanes.
Bell didn't expect to run up against a superstar when he moved to Trenton two years ago after working in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign.
"One of the attractions," Bell said, "was I thought if I could beat Case I'd run against a weak Democrat. They usually put up patsies against him."
Whatever the polls show about attitudes toward tax cuts, Bell says, "It was not so much that I started as a single-issue candidate, but that I found we had a single-issue electorate."
He is an articulate and forceful speaker who wins good receptions even from civil rights groups and others who rarely welcome conservative Republicans.
Bell likes to go beyond the details of taxcuts and a return to a fixed monetary standard to describe the present as a momentous point in history.
"My reading of history is that radical changes take place very quickly. The French Revolution, the New Deal, the major civil rights acts of the 1960s all came quickly after pressure had built up over a long period," Bell tells audiences.
"I sense a movement building in this country," Bell continues. "We are at the end of a long period of frustration." Bell calls economists "witch-doctors" and asked how long the nation is going to follow the same men who have brought it to 1978.
At present, he argues, there are high taxes on low productivity, but the government could raise the same revenue by putting low taxes on high productivity. It is like a bridge that no one would cross if the toll were $5,000 but would bring in plenty of revenue if the toll were 50 cents, Bell says.
Bradley calls Bell's tax cut panacea "snake oil."
"It would be amusing ifit weren't so cynical." Bradley says. "I want the waste and fat out of government, Bell wants to cut the heart."
Bradley has countered the tax cut pressure from Bell with a proposal for a $25 billion, one-time tax cut mainly benefitting lower and middle income taxpayers. Bell wants to cut capital gains taxes to a maximum 25 percent: Bradley favors a smaller rate cut and a one-time exclusion of $100,000 for the sale of a home.
The Bell plan, which is embodied in the congressional Kemp-Roth bill, would lead to raging inflation that could cripple the nation, Bradley argues.
There are many other issues on which the candidates disagree, but they are rarely raised in a campaign devoted to taxes and the economy.
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Each candidate says he plans to spend about $1 million and large chunks of money will go for television commercials in the last week of the campaign. Bell says he will have enough money to get his message across and he has received $100,000 from the Republican National Campaign Committee, which has made his effort one of its principal targets.
Bell is also trying to get more free time on television. The candidates agreed to a series of 21 debates, but New Jersey is a state without a VHF television channel and very few people are watching the UHF channels that carry some of the confrontations.
With an easy debating style, Bell does very well head-to-head with Bradley and he makes his tax cut sound appealing. Bradley is in the more awkward position of replying that problems are more complex.
At a debate last Wednesday before the state Chamber of Commerce, Bell won the laughter and applause with his praise for Proposition 13 and his joke that, "I have just been told some members of the middle class still have bank accounts."
Bell has appealed to New York and Philadelphia television stations to carry the debates. His campaign team would have loved to have had widespread coverage of a debate last Thursday night from which Bradley withdrew at the last minute. Bell appeared alone, facing a empty chair.
If Bradley wins as expected, his liberal-Democrat campaign will not have blazed a new trial and he will have sounded the tocsin for no national movement, but he is likely to be more prominent than most freshman senators. It will not be long before he begins to be mentioned as one of the Democratic Party's young comers.