TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ When New Jersey Republicans were looking for someone to serve as the sacrificial lamb and run against a seemingly unbeatable Sen. Bill Bradley in 1990, they turned to newcomer Christie Whitman.

But Whitman, a utilities regulator from a politically connected family, turned the race into something of a referendum on Gov. Jim Florio's just- passed $2.8 billion tax increase. And she shocked both parties by coming within a hair of winning.

Three years later, she's running directly against a still-hurting Florio.

The 46-year-old Whitman scored an easy primary victory Tuesday to become the GOP candidate for governor. She also became the first woman in New Jersey to win a major-party nomination for the state's top job.

''We're going to be Florio-free by November the third of 1993,'' she declared.

Her political resume has only two items - a five-year stint as a county freeholder (member of the county's governing body) and an appointment as head of a board that regulates utilities - and she portrays herself as a government outsider. But Whitman knows the inside game well.

Her father, Webster B. Todd, was a prominent Republican Party figure who helped President Bush's New Jersey effort in 1980. Richard Nixon, a New Jersey resident, held a fund-raiser for her last year. Her campaign consultant is Ed Rollins, former White House political director under President Reagan.

Whitman comes from old money and grew up on a farm near Trenton. She and her investment banker husband, John, reported $3.7 million in earnings last year.

During the campaign, she admitted she had hired illegal aliens for child care and received property tax breaks on her estate through a farmland preservation program.

Her primary opponents attempted to portray her as out of touch with the average voter - a charge she slammed as unfair. She maintains that Florio is no friend to the common people because he raised taxes at a cost of some 350,000 jobs.

''We can either go forward with high taxes or we can fundamentally change,'' she said. Still, Whitman does not promise to repeal all of Florio's tax increase, vowing instead to streamline government.

On social issues, including abortion, Whitman is a moderate, a plus for Republicans in New Jersey.

Whitman has essentially been a full-time candidate for governor since she lost to Bradley. She kept her name alive by writing columns, acting as host of a radio talk show and helping other GOP candidates.