sussex county - They stretched across the crowded stage at Sussex Tech last week seven-wide, rubbing elbows, sharing a microphone, and swapping pitches to court the voters of Sussex County. The Republican candidates vying for their party's nomination for governor had traveled to the far northwest corner of the state to take part in a debate deep in the heart of state GOP politics. "You don"t want to lose Sussex County," said Rich Zeoli, chairman of the Sussex County Republican Committee. "This is the county that's going to put the Republican nominee over the top in November. This county is the epicenter of Republicanism in New Jersey." For many of the voters who attended last week's debate, what matters most in Sussex County concerns bears, traffic, and land preservation, issues party officials say the candidates better make sure they know more about. "There are some issues that are very specific to Sussex County," said Zeoli. "The candidates have got to do their homework to win our votes and our nomination. They've got to appeal to our minds and hearts." All candidates at the debate took issue with some form of the Highlands preservation act. Both Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano (R-Essex) and Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan called for its repeal. Doug Forrester, a former West Windsor mayor and failed U.S. Senate candidate, said there's simply no money to support additional transportation programs. "As governor, I"m going to have to bring New Jersey into rehab," said Forrester. "We are bankrupt. This is an emergency situation. It's going to be a difficult year." A recent Quinnipiac University poll, gave the Mercer County businessman a 33-29 percent lead against former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler in the race for the gubernatorial nomination among Republican voters, with 30 percent undecided. When five other possible candidates were added to the mix, Forrester received 32 percent to Schundler"s 31 percent. No other candidate breaks 3 percent. The poll has a plus/minus margin of 6 percent. "Both leading Republicans, Bret Schundler and Doug Forrester, have closed the gap a little as they get better known," said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "The GOP contest is still Schundler and Forrester neck and neck with no other candidate in sight." "I believe the winner of that convention will be the one who has most articulately laid out a specific plan for Sussex County," said Zeoli. "They've got some work to do in the next few weeks." The candidates will return for the county's Republican Convention April 16.