By struggling to lower the nation's highest property taxes, New Jersey's Democratic leaders could be handing an important election issue to the Republicans. But a campaign money gap and recent political history are working against the GOP.

In addition to the governor's office, Democrats control the Assembly by a 49-31 margin and the Senate by a 22-18 margin. The GOP's best takeover shot this year is in the Senate, where it would need just three seats, but the Democrats might not have to worry.

"The state isn't a blue state," said New Jersey Republican analyst Roger Bodman. "It's a deep shade of blue, and the Republican results reflect it."

Need evidence that Democrats are in a comfortable spot? Try this: New Jersey voters haven't given a plurality to a GOP presidential candidate since 1988 or elected a Republican to statewide office in a decade. And according to the latest campaign-finance reports, Democrats have $3.4 million in campaign cash, to $1.1 million for the Republicans.

The Republican Party also is suffering from a generational turnover. Some of the party's best-known state senators, including Bob Martin of Morris County, Len Connors of Ocean, and Joseph Palaia of Monmouth, are retiring. Most are leaving seats in safe Republican districts, meaning the party is likely to hold on in those areas.

However, the retirement of State Sen. William Gormley in Atlantic County has put that seat in play because of the area's changing demographics and an infusion of Democratic money that has fueled several successful local campaigns.

Although last year's U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr. was the party's best shot at statewide office in a decade, it was crushed under the national anti-President Bush wave and the candidate's disappointing performance on the trail.

The race revealed an even deeper problem for Republicans. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll showed that hardcore Republican voters' confidence in Kean's ability to win declined as the race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez became fully engaged. When Republicans were asked who was going to win, their belief in their own candidate dropped from 48 percent in September to 37 percent in the final stretch.

In addition, their chairman's former business partner pleaded guilty in December to overbilling a government agency. There was no indication of wrongdoing on the part of GOP chairman Tom Wilson. But his ability to make his trademark guilt-by-association arguments against Democrats will surely be countered by the Democrats' own guilt-by-association arguments against him.

Wilson, for his part, believes reports of the party's feebleness are grossly exaggerated.

"We're going to have Democrats up against the ropes this year because of inaction on ethics and tax reform," he said. "Nobody's going to see a lower property-tax bill before the election this year."

Maybe, maybe not.

Some Republicans, including Pete McDonough, an aide to former GOP Gov. Christie Whitman, suspect the Democrats will have enough money banked from the summer sales-tax hike to deliver marginal property-tax cuts. But they say Democrats won't attack the underlying government spending enough to sustain the tax cuts.

"They [Democrats] won't change anything that goes into their urban base," such as school-funding formulas, said Republican political consultant Dave Murray. "They are not going to touch unions in any way, shape or form."

State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) said that while she believed there "is a possibility a 20 percent cut will happen - it might happen one time."

Citizens aren't that charitable. Yesterday's Quinnipiac University poll of 1,310 voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, found that 70 percent don't believe there will be meaningful tax reform.

Democrats are trying to quash the early stages of a public rebellion.

Last week, about 3,000 people packed a Washington Township Board of Education meeting to voice their opposition to consolidated county school district legislation.

Although lawmakers said the vaguely written bills would not force busing, curriculum cuts or school shutdowns, residents whipped up by the teachers' union were angry enough that the Democratic Senate caucus pulled the bills from this week's agenda for a rewrite.

What is likely to emerge, according to Democratic Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, is a bill that would consolidate the purchasing of goods and services.

Republicans say that won't go far enough, but they know they won't be able to expose what they believe are shallow Democratic reforms. They simply don't have the organization to do it.

The GOP political consultant, Murray, who enjoyed victory after victory during the era after Democratic Gov. Jim Florio raised taxes, now laments: "Florio. Where is he when we need him? It sucks being a Republican now."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.