MIDDLETOWN, N.J. – Republicans are daring to hope that typically Democratic New Jersey will be a win for President Bush this fall, in large part because of the state's ties to Wall Street (search) and lingering memories of Sept. 11.
Four years ago, neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush (search) paid much attention to New Jersey, assumed to be etched on the Democratic slate. And it was: The vice president defeated the Texas governor by 16 percentage points.
Then came the Bush tax cuts and other economic initiatives that favored investors. The terrorist attacks were felt by New York City bedroom communities like Middletown, which lost 37 residents that day, and turned attention in the state to homeland security and the war on terrorism.
A Quinnipiac poll in May showed John Kerry (search) and Bush in a tight race, with those polled choosing Kerry by just 46 percent to Bush's 43 percent. The poll, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, showed Kerry's favorability rating among New Jersey voters almost evenly divided among those who have formed an opinion of him. A third, 33 percent, said they had a mixed opinion.
"This poll, and other polls, show that he needs to go out and be better understood and known by the voters," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute (search).
"Kerry is not being clear enough to people," said Rick Thigpen, the former executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. "I watch George Bush on TV and I want to gag on his politics, but he is clear in his message."
Kerry will be paying more attention to New Jersey on Monday when he visits singer Jon Bon Jovi's house in Middletown for a fund-raiser. Actor James Gandolfini, who portrays a New Jersey mob boss in the HBO show "The Sopranos," is expected to attend. On Tuesday, Kerry will speak in Atlantic City at the AFL-CIO's (search) 26th Constitutional Convention.
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said the poll shows the profound impact the Sept. 11 attacks have had on the state.
"In New York, it would have dissipated because of the size of the state," Baker said. "In New Jersey, what had been a fairly strong trend in the Democratic direction may have been arrested by 9/11, and the president is seen as being much more of a decisive leader because of his reaction to the attacks."
Some Democrats scoff at the idea that the White House seriously believes Bush could win New Jersey's 15 electoral votes.
"I don't see how the president is going to make headway in one cycle in a place like New Jersey, which has been trending Democratic, where a majority of the voters think the country is on the wrong track and the president is doing a bad job and they're worried about Iraq," Kerry adviser Tad Devine said. "Do people know who John Kerry is? No. But that will change."
Other Democrats said New Jersey has a history of breaking late for their party. Gore led by just 4 percentage points at this time in 2000, Kerry pollster Mark Mehlman said.
A longtime Democrat who isn't so certain is Philip Moschetta, 64, the owner of Natural Man Barbershop in Middletown. He supported Gore in 2000 but hasn't decided for whom he'll vote in November.
"There are people who don't know much about Kerry," Moschetta said. "I don't think he has the look or charisma or personality that's needed."
Across the street at Sabatos Prime Meats, Andy Sabatos said he will vote again for Bush -- with reservations.
"I'm not really thrilled with Iraq (search) -- I think things could have been handled better -- but I don't want to vote for John Kerry," said Sabatos, 50. "It's just my gut feeling."
Sabatos and Moschetta agreed that Bush has performed strongly in fighting terrorism. Both knew some of the victims of Sept. 11, a day they remember vividly. "Now you wake up in the morning," Moschetta said, "and you don't know if something is going to happen to you."
New Jersey voters hold a favorable view of Bush's response to the attacks as well as his tax cuts, said David Rebovich, who teaches political science at Rider University. Republican strategist Tom Wilson, who ran former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's re-election campaign, said he is surprised that some are shocked by Bush's polling here.
"I think people believe we are at a critical juncture in the history of this country," Wilson said. "And I think people are struggling to find out what Kerry is going to do to make their lives different."
New Jersey is a high-income state, Wilson said, and Bush's tax cuts are seen favorably. "There are more people here who are directly and indirectly benefited from the tax cuts," he said.
Growth in the suburbs and dissatisfaction with Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey (search) also help Bush, his strategist Matthew Dowd said. "And John Kerry is not the type of strong leader New Jersey folk want as president," Dowd said.
Both campaigns are already spending considerable dollars to run ads in Philadelphia, which reaches southern New Jersey. Neither is on the air in New York City, where a reasonable buy to reach northern New Jersey can run $1.5 million. Dowd said a decision to put more money toward those markets is unlikely before the Democratic convention in late July.
"If polls continue to show that Bush can win here," said Roger Bodman, a Republican lobbyist in Trenton, "I think he will make a decision to go ahead."