One of the last great dual bursts of New Jersey pride occurred more than three-score years ago, according to state Sen. Bill Gormley. Woodrow Wilson, a former Garden State governor, was president at the same time poet Joyce Kilmer, born and raised in mid-state New Brunswick, was winning national acclaim.
Now, Gormley boasts, a new duo is boosting prestige in this often maligned state. One is a rock star from Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore. The other is the patrician Republican governor from Livingston with staggering statewide political popularity.
"This is the decade of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Kean," Gormley proclaimed to delegates at the recent Atlantic County Republican Convention. "Just as Springsteen offers us the pulse beat of the state and the feelings of its people, we have a governor who translates that into action."
Gormley's pronouncement might sound like election-year bluster, especially since the governor, Thomas Howard Kean, 50, was elected in 1981 by only 1,797 votes.
Polls earlier this year, however, gave Kean favorable job ratings from more than 70 percent of key Democrats and independents interviewed. These included blacks, the most loyal Democratic voters.
The wealthy realtor and self-described "conservative with compassion" showed name recognition equal to that of the state's most popular politician, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), and three times as great as that of any of the five Democrats in the June 4 primary.
While the Democrats scramble for media attention, Kean, unopposed in the primary, is tooting his horn loudly.
During his first term, he told convention-goers, the state's unemployment rate has been halved and is below the national average, and 330,000 jobs have been added to the economy.
Crime is down, student scores on nationally standardized tests are up and the average state resident has a higher personal income than his counterpart in neighboring New York or Pennsylvania, Kean noted.
"We're a state that's going forward under Republican leadership and on Republican principles," Kean said. "New Jersey's on a roll."
Garden State Republicans said they hope to ride Kean's popularity not only to a second term in the statehouse but also to gains in the legislature, where all House seats are being contested this year. They now are held by 44 Democrats and 34 Republicans, with two vacancies.
Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), who narrowly lost to Kean in 1981 and will not challenge him this year, said Kean, like President Reagan, has become a virtual "Teflon" chief executive, to whom no criticism seems to stick.
"The governor has very successfully, in the public perception, unlinked himself from state government . . . . He has been able to shield himself from the inevitable consequences of making decisions," Florio said. "It's been a beautiful public relations campaign . . . a very optimistic projection of the way things are going."
Democrats outnumber Republicans, 3 to 2, among the state's 3.8 million registered voters and, before Kean's election, Democrats occupied the governor's office for 24 of the previous 28 years. They also control both chambers of the legislature.
Kean, however, "has fashioned somewhat of a personal following . . . that has in a sense almost enabled him to lose that party label," state Senate President Carmen Orechio (D) said. "We have a tough row to hoe, no question about that."
Kean's political standing is good news for national Republican strategists seeking ways to cut deeply next year into the Democrats' 2-to-1 advantage in the statehouses. About two-thirds of the nation's governorships will be on the line then; only New Jersey and Virginia hold gubernatorial contests this year.
Neither party is preparing to pour heavy resources into either state, officials said. "Eighty-five isn't the focus. It has to be '86," said Michele Davis, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "The '85 campaigns are so well along their way that the impact we can have is minimal."
Reagan campaigned for Kean in 1981, and voters' opposition to some of the president's policies almost cost him victory. Since taking office, however, Kean has built what one observer called widespread "personal credibility," in part by frequently leading the charge against Reagan proposals on toxic waste, aid to cities, mass-transit subsidies and other issues.
Yet, there are many shared chapters in the Reagan and Kean success stories.
Both built on the initial benefit of succeeding incumbents who were unpopular at the end of their terms. Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter, and Kean succeeded Brendan T. Byrne (D). Both ran against opponents often perceived as cold and aloof.
Soft-spoken, somewhat rumpled and a deadpan humorist, Kean nevertheless has fashioned a television image that some consider as effective as that of Reagan. Unlike the president, he is very accessible to reporters.
Both have sought to capitalize on economic recovery and the politics of feeling good. "New Jersey had for years an inferiority complex that I think affected us more deeply than I think we were willing to admit," Kean told a reporter.
Kean's home-pride message rings with special resonance for some because of his background. Kean's late father, Robert Winthrop Kean, was a U.S. congressman for 20 years, and his grandfather served in the U.S. Senate. He is a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt and a descendant of William Livingston, the state's first governor.
The governor draws populist support without a populist tongue. Kean lived in Washington, D.C., until he was 13, then attended a Massachusetts prep school that left him with a distinct New England accent and not a touch of "Joisey" in his voice.
Like Reagan, Kean campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes. In office, however, he faced a growing budget deficit and quickly broke that promise. The state sales tax was raised from 5 percent to 6 percent, and the income tax rate was increased for taxpayers with annual earnings of at least $60,000. Now, the state stands to reap a $1 billion budget surplus, and a business-tax reduction is scheduled soon.
Kean also has targeted more aid for ailing cities and increased welfare-grant levels, while Reagan has not. Kean has avoided controversial issues, focusing policy initiatives on building roads, creating jobs and improving education.
Rays of hope have appeared recently for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates: Newark Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson, State Senate Majority Leader John F. Russo of Ocean County, Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro, Morristown lawyer Robert J. Del Tufo and former Morris County state senator Stephen Wiley.
The director of the state's Department of Motor Vehicles resigned amid controversy after his selection of a GOP contributor for a lucrative state contract to provide driver's-license photographs. The furor resurrected nagging complaints of party favoritism by Kean's administration.
Meanwhile, state legislative committees continued hearings on administration overspending on advertisement to promote tourism, including some that featured joint appearances by Kean and actress Brooke Shields. Some Democrats suggested that they could be state-financed campaign promotions.
Like several northeastern states, New Jersey is on the verge of a serious drought, with reservoirs at their lowest point in five years, according to Kean aides. The state also has scores of untouched toxic-waste dumps, prompting discussion by Democrats that the environment, the No. 1 issue in most polls, could be Kean's Achilles' heel.
The governor, dismissing that quickly, told the convention:
"Hot air and press releases are never going to clean up the environment. They're just adding to the pollution."