Republican gubernatorial candidates have been busy this week building support for a primary election that is still a half-year away.

And political scientist Ben Dworkin said nothing could be better for a party that's been on a long losing streak.

"There will be a Republican primary for governor, and it will be a vigorous one," predicted Dworkin, director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. "And it's very much needed by the Republican Party, which will need to find a way to coalesce around its central ideas and themes."

He said the party must use the June primary to do some soul-searching on issues and to figure out what it means to be a Jersey Republican.

"A primary can serve a bigger purpose than to find who's going to go out and lose to the Democrats," he said.

So the lines are being drawn.

Yesterday, State Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. sent out a note from his campaign reminding Republicans and reporters that his favorite potential gubernatorial candidate, former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, not only did a boffo job in office but that editorial writers around the state thought the same.

Kean included links to editorials in five newspapers, including The Inquirer, which had high praise for Christie's six years of crime-busting.

"As an elected official, a resident of our great state - and as a friend - I want to thank Chris for his exceptional service," he said.

On Monday, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonagan announced once again that he is running for governor. Monday was important for the announcement because that was the day Christie left the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Christie, the potential candidate drawing the most attention, says he's considering his options and won't have anything to say until after the holidays.

But if he runs, he would find an opponent on his home turf in Morris County, where he was a freeholder. Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R., Morris) announced Wednesday that he had picked up endorsements from more than 50 elected officials in Morris County. Merkt has been on the campaign trail since October.

And, just to engage the other side, state GOP Chairman Tom Wilson yesterday trained his sights on Democratic Gov. Corzine by daring him to declare a sales tax holiday during the winter shopping season.

Corzine's staff dismissed Wilson's tax holiday call as a "rehash of an idea presented a month ago and widely dismissed as a gimmick that won't have the intended effect."

Republicans have had crowded primaries in the past, with a three-way primary for the U.S. Senate this year and a half-dozen candidates looking to be governor in 2005. Dworkin said those primaries only produced a candidate, not someone who could galvanize the GOP as a winning machine.

"The more open it [a primary] is, the better it will be for the party, which at this point needs to find a way to win statewide elections," said Dworkin.

Corzine is quietly gearing up his campaign. His deputy chief of staff, Maggie Moran, is set to leave the government for the campaign at the end of this month.

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