By Matt Friedman | March 24th, 2008 - 6:19pm
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As Goya Foods heir Andy Unanue starts his first ever race for elected office, he’ll have an experienced team waiting for him.

Once he gets back from Colorado.

Unanue is on a vacation with his extended family in Vail, and he won’t be returning to New Jersey in time to attend the Republican conventions scheduled for this week in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, Middlesex and Salem Counties. He planned the trip a year ago, he said, and even a Senate candidacy isn’t enough to make him shirk the familial responsibility.

Instead, he’ll send surrogates to the conventions, and will address screening committees in conference calls. He plans to return to his homes in New Jersey and New York City early next month.

“I’m not a politician. I don’t really worry about how hard it’s going to be,” Unanue said when asked if not being able to attend the conventions will hurt his chances. “I’m worried about winning the primary and the election. I’m in the process of aligning myself with what I would consider the best and most talented staff.”

And who will make up that staff? Expect to see some familiar faces.

After Anne Estabrook dropped out of the race earlier this month, she essentially put her campaign workers on standby, offering as severance their full salaries for the period ending June 3rd —the date of the primary. Most of those workers have not moved on, and the lease remains active for Estabrook’s campaign office on Freehold’s Main Street.

Former Estabrook campaign manager Mark Duffy has already jumped on board. So has former Estabrook spokesman and Monmouth County Republican operative John Raue, who issued a Unanue press release today.

Unanue said that he talked with Estabrook today about hiring some members of her staff, and she recommended that he take the whole lot.

“Being that I am away I have spoken to (Estabrook campaign manager Mark Duffy extensively over the phone. I agree with Anne that he’s top notch . I get along with him very well,” said Unanue. “He and I will be working very closely over the next three weeks.”

 

Less than 24 hours into his candidacy, it’s clear that Unanue is the pick of many members of the Republican establishment, who were hesitant to get behind rivals Murray Sabrin or Joe Pennacchio. That Unanue is in the process of taking on the campaign staff of Estabrook, the previous establishment candidate, is the most obvious evidence of that yet.

It’s tempting to see Unanue, a wealthy businessman who plans to self-fund his candidacy, in the same mold as Estabrook. But Unanue has not yet made any public appearances or statements beyond his letter to GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson, so most of his stances are still a mystery to those who don’t know him intimately.

Unanue said that he plans to issue position papers within a week or so, and didn’t want to attach an ideological label to himself. But he did answer a question about his stance on abortion.

“While I am against partial-birth abortion and late-term abortion and for parental notification, I am pro-choice,” he said.

Some prominent out-of-state Republicans reached out to Unanue to encourage him to run, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (R-NV), who had previously supported Anne Estabrook (not in his official NRSC capacity), and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL).

“Getting calls like this from Senators like this, who lead busy lives, went a long way in helping me make my decision,” he said.

Unanue said that he’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s encountered, and has gotten about six hours of sleep during the last 96 hours.

Uanue will likely have to outline some of his positions soon, since he needs to start campaigning immediately. That means convincing the rank and file in a number of upcoming conventions to give him the party line – even in his absence.

Unanue will start in Monmouth County, where Republicans are set to hold a convention on Wednesday. He’ll join a conference call with Chairman Adam Puharic and the county screening committee tomorrow evening.

“I’m very interested in hearing about Andy’s story, because I find from what I’ve talked to the people around Andy, that some of his positions are sort of mainstream New Jersey conservative positions, which make me very happy,” said Puharic.

Puharic added that he doesn’t understand why Sabrin is bothering to attend his county’s convention, since he pledged to run lines against all of the other candidates. And he was puzzled, he said, that Pennacchio never reached out to him after news broke about his 1991 policy papers that caused a stir in Republican circles.

“I would have expected him to spend some time with me on the phone to explain what that was all about and what that meant, because it has me concerned and surprised,” he said.

Even if Unanue doesn’t win the Monmouth convention, the party’s bylaws allow the chairman ultimate discretion in awarding the party line.

On Thursday evening, Unanue will make a trip to meet the Burlington County Republicans’ executive committee before heading down to Ocean and Atlantic Counties to face off against Pennacchio and Sabrin in those conventions.

On Sunday, he’ll compete at the Salem County convention.

“He called me on Saturday and said he was interested in running,” said Salem County GOP Chairman Paul Reed. “I had a good conversation with him, and I think he’s the man we’re looking for.”

In Cape May County, Republican Chairman David Von Savage has personally endorsed Unanue.

The Burlington County Republicans had endorsed Estabrook, and Chairman Bill Layton said that it’s too late to reconvene the county committee. So the executive committee will decide who gets the party line. Layton said he will abide by their decision, but expressed excitement about Unanue’s candidacy.

“I still want to wait and see where he stands on the issues and what his general feelings are about different things, but his candidacy in general is just an exciting opportunity for Republicans,” said Layton. “Just like (state Sen.) Diane Allen would have been an exciting opportunity for us having a woman running for senate, now we have a Hispanic male with a great business background, great education and he’s someone who can stand toe-to-toe with Frank Lautenberg.”

Layton said that Unanue’s absences from county conventions aren’t going to be of particular concern.

“I just think he’s got his priorities straight, to be honest with you. He puts his family first,” he said.

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