Democrat Jim McGreevey Holds 1-Percent Lead Over Incumbent Republican Governor Christie Whitman With 78 Percent Of Precincts ReportingBy THOMAS MARTELLO

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ Republican Gov. Christie Whitman, a surprise winner as New Jersey's first female governor four years ago, struggled to avoid being upset herself Tuesday.

With more than three-quarters of the vote counted, Democrat Jim McGreevey held a slim lead.

With 78 percent of precincts reporting, McGreevey had 853,842 votes, or 47 percent, while Whitman had 843,794 votes, or 46 percent. Libertarian Murray Sabrin, a 50-year-old college professor making his first run for office, had 84,947 votes, or 5 percent.

Whitman supporters at a Plainsboro hotel tried to remain optimistic hours after the polls closed, but grim faces reflected the challenger's early lead.

``She's tried very hard and obviously it's not working all that well,'' said Senate President Donald DiFrancesco.

Analysts had expected Sabrin, a staunch abortion opponent, to draw votes from Whitman, who has traditionally run into problems with the conservative Republicans for supporting abortion and affirmative action.

Elected in 1993, Whitman upset the Democratic incumbent, Jim Florio, by promising to cut the state income tax 30 percent over three years.

Whitman did it in two years, thrusting her into the national spotlight. She was mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate and acted as co-host of the party's national convention last year.

In a statewide exit poll Tuesday, voters said New Jersey's economy is in good shape, and their personal finances have stayed the same or improved under Whitman.

The poll also found nearly nine in 10 said the issue of auto insurance was important in deciding whether to return Whitman to office, a topic trumpeted by McGreevey, 40, a state Senator and mayor of Woodbridge, the state's fifth-largest municipality.

And 95 percent said state and local taxes were important in their choice.

The exit poll was conducted among 1,977 voters statewide by Voter News Service, a collaboration of The Associated Press and the ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox television networks. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 3 percentage points.