By Matt Friedman | March 21st, 2008 - 3:02pm
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Several Republican leaders across the state are anxiously awaiting Goya Food heir Andy Unanue’s decision on whether or not to enter the U.S. Senate race.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio may have won the county line for U.S. Senate in Bergen by a landslide earlier this month over hometown candidate Murray Sabrin, but if Unanue decides to run, things could change.

Bergen County Republican Chairman Rob Ortiz has been courting Unanue for some time. Unanue, who’s friends with Ortiz, is said to be interested, and plans to mull the prospect over the weekend and make a decision by Monday. He currently splits his time between his home in Alpine and an apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West.

“I think I have to speak to my executive committee and discuss the options, because technically candidates can come in as late as April 7,” said Ortiz. “We as an organization chose to have our convention early.”

The prospect of a Unanue candidacy – which reported first yesterday – has perked up the ears of some of the most powerful Republican county chairmen in the state – many of whom supported Anne Estabrook before she dropped out of the race and, unlike Ortiz, have yet to award their county lines.

“From a Cape May County standpoint and what I’ve gleaned from talking to fellow chairmen, there really is a reduced level of interest towards Pennacchio and Sabrin,” said Cape May County Republican Chairman David Von Savage. “Our county has not yet endorsed a U.S. Senate candidate, so all options are on the table, and what I’m hearing about Andy there’s a definite interest here to get behind him.”

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole, who heads the Essex County Republican Party, has heard a lot of buzz about the prospective candidate.

“Clearly people have advocated for him. I had a conversation with him,” he said. “He’s a very interesting character – he’s weighing whether he should jump in. He’s probably not the last name you’re going to hear either.”

Some Republicans even think that a candidate like Unanue could skip the convention process altogether and run a campaign off the county lines if need be.

In many ways, Unanue fits the Estabrook profile – a wealthy moderate businessman who has the ability to entirely self-fund the race.

Like Estabrook, Unanue made some contributions to federal Democratic candidates in 2000. Estabrook faced criticism from some conservative Republicans for that, but party leaders say they’re not concerned about a couple donations Unanue made eight years ago. He’s donated much more to Republicans – including $25,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004. His local contributions read like a who’s who of moderate New Jersey Republicans, including former Gov. Christie Whitman, state Sen. Bill Gormley and state Sen. Bill Baroni.

The combination of Unanue’s youth, wealth and Hispanic heritage makes many Republicans believe that he would have a good shot in the general election against incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg.

“I believe it’s tremendously important. If you look at the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the inroads made with the Hispanic community were tremendous. In 2006 and 2007 those numbers started dwindling,” said Ortiz. “He becomes not only a very attractive candidate, due to the fact that he’s a businessman that’s fiscally conservative and understands the issues, but also that he can convey that message in English and Spanish.”

There’s another plus to Unanue’s heritage as well. Barack Obama isn’t exactly popular with the state’s Hispanics, who make up a large part of north Jersey’s Democratic base. If Obama is the Democratic presidential nominee over Hillary Clinton, who remains popular with Hispanic voters, Unanue could cut significantly into that important Democratic voting bloc.

Republicans see Lautenberg as vulnerable – if they can find the right candidate to run against him.

“The contrast with Frank Lautenberg will be night and day,” added Ortiz.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Diane Allen remains on the Republican bench as another potential candidate. She’s said to be in a holding pattern, and some insiders suggest she may enter the race if Unanue declines. Others doubt the prospect, given her battle with pneumonia and inability to begin campaigning immediately.

Camden County GOP Chairman Rick DeMichele will get to decide who gets the county line, and he’s torn between three candidates.

“Unanue is certainly a candidate I could support,” he said. “I’m waiting for Diane Allen to make her determination, and unfortunately for us, there’s not much time. And I still haven’t ruled out Joe Pennacchio.”

Pennacchio refused to argue with Ortiz about how the Bergen County line is awarded, but said that it would be tough for him to go against the wishes of the party’s rank and file.

“It would be difficult in my view to turn around and tell the 80% of the county committee who voted for me on convention night that their votes are being discounted,” he said.

Sabrin spokesman George Ajjan said that his candidate is the most qualified to serve.

“Murray’s in this race because he has more than a 30 year track record of standing up for Republican principles of limited government. Neither Joe Pennacchio nor Andy Unanue nor anyone else I can see getting in this race can say that,” he said.

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