WASHINGTON – Editor's note: This article is the second in an occasional series about unexpected swing states in the 2004 presidential race.
If fictional Mafia bigwigs were the key to winning New Jersey, John Kerry (search) would have the state all sewn up. Unfortunately for the Democratic presidential candidate, endorsements from actors James Gandolfini and Steve Buscemi of the mob show "The Sopranos" are not enough in this surprisingly close northeastern state race.
George W. Bush's (search) poll numbers have been largely static nationally. Meanwhile, New Jersey has been reliably Democratic in recent elections. But recent polls show an unexpectedly competitive race in the Garden State (search). According to state Republican party officials, voters in this wealthy, mostly suburban state are attracted to Bush because of his economic policy and homeland security credentials.
"Homeland security is at the forefront of minds of people in the state," said Brian Nelson, executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee (search), who noted that nearly 1,000 New Jersey commuters were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. "[It's] one of the reasons we see greater support for [Bush]."
In addition to homeland security, Nelson said that New Jerseyans, many of whom are investors and work on Wall Street, have taken advantage of Bush's economic initiatives and would like to see them extended.
"We've got a lot of individuals that benefited from the capital gains cuts," he said, adding that tax cuts and falling jobless numbers in the state are almost directly correlated.
Although state Democrats acknowledge the race is closer than they would like, they point out that strong numbers in July guaranteed nothing come November and, they argue, Bush is weak on a wide range of issues that New Jersey voters care about.
"In general, people in New Jersey believe that George W. Bush has taken the nation in the wrong direction," said Adam Green, communications director for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (search). Education, the environment, tax fairness and support for veterans "all are big issues in New Jersey and all are ones where Bush has let down families."
Green said he doubts that homeland security, the topic Bush and the GOP hope to capitalize on, will be an issue that benefits the president.
"Homeland security (search) is a huge issue in New Jersey, and it's an issue that Democrats really will take Bush to task on. In New Jersey, we have ports that have not been protected by this president. We have firefighters and policemen who have seen their funding cut by this president," Green said. "We are significantly underfunded by George W. Bush. We aim to make this one issue in a long list of issues."
Despite the hard charges against the president by Democrats, as well as Democrats' trouncing of Republicans in the last three presidential elections, Kerry's lead over Bush is far from commanding.
A Quinnipiac University poll released June 23 found Kerry leading Bush by six points in a three-way contest with Ralph Nader. In a head-to-head contest Kerry bested Bush by eight points. The poll of registered voters in New Jersey was taken before Kerry named John Edwards as his running mate, and had a margin of error of 2.9 percent.
Although this lead is outside the margin of error, it is much smaller than the 16-point victory scored by Al Gore over Bush in 2000 or the 18-point margin that Bill Clinton had over Bob Dole in 1996.
To pull off a win and rake in New Jersey's 15 electoral votes, Republicans will have to buck this history. And to hear them speak, they sound like they think they have a real shot at winning the state.
"It certainly is in play. A number of polls have consistently shown the president within just a couple of points. Basically, there is a statistical dead heat with John Kerry in the state," Nelson said.
"The state was written off for John Kerry, but as we see now a number of people are putting it in the purple category," he added, referring to the red-state designation for Republicans on electoral maps and the blue-state label for Democrats. "This is certainly something that the Bush campaign and the RNC has started paying attention to."
The state is likely to be saturated with advertising and political information in the coming months, albeit inadvertently. The Republican convention will be held in nearby New York City at the end of August, and Pennsylvania is a major battleground state that will be fought for over the airwaves in nearby Philadelphia.
While losing New Jersey would be a devastating blow for the Kerry campaign, Larry Bartels, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University (search), told FOXNews.com that it's too early in the race to rely on polls.
"I think polls at this time of the year are virtually meaningless. People haven’t really started to think seriously of who they are going to vote for," Bartels said, adding, "If he's doing badly in states that have looked as favorably as New Jersey has, he will be doing worse presumably in states that are real battleground states."
However, Bartels said he is skeptical that New Jersey would be a battleground state.
"The general trend in presidential voting in the state has been in the Democratic direction rather than the Republican direction. It seems unlikely that it will shift enough to really be competitive," Bartels said.