Down in Jersey

Once a safe bet for the Democrats, Garden State's thorny for Kerry

You never know with the Dems. Debates aside, one factor helping Bush is a shaky Democratic base. In Pennsylvania, which appears to be settling down toward Bush, pollsters say the black rank and file don't care for Kerry, and without inspiration may not vote in large numbers. If that happens in the Kerry base of southeastern Pennsylvania around Philadelphia, a big turnout in the Reagan-Democrat southwestern part of the state could land it decisively in the Bush column. The election could be decided here.

Even the pros were shocked last week when Kerry's lead in New Jersey looked to be going down the drain. This is a state that was safe for Clinton-Gore in the '90s and which Gore took in 2000. Last week, polls showed Bush and Kerry even. Analysts are pointing to three salient factors behind the perceived Dem drop. New Jersey lost 700 people on 9-11, and the attack forms a permanent backdrop to whatever happens. According to a recent Newark Star Ledger–Eagleton poll, a quarter of the population thinks about 9-11 every day. A presidential candidate must show firm resolve in this area; Bush apparently is perceived as doing just that, while Kerry is perceived as unclear. In Jersey, like many other parts of the nation, 9-11, the Iraq war, and the war on terror have congealed into one issue, that of presidential leadership. Nuance and differences are lost in the larger debate.

Secondly, the Democratic governor has made a shambles of the state. By refusing to get out of office right away, Jim McGreevey can be assured that the professional politicians are concentrated on the governor's race in 2005, not the presidential election in 2004. Finally, no one's seen Kerry. There's no advertising, and Democratic political pros have departed the state to work for Kerry in places like Oregon. Nobody ever dreamed they'd have to fight in New Jersey. If it comes down to an election between the parties' base camps, Bush can count on a 90 percent GOP turnout, while Kerry can count on 75 percent. There are 4.6 million registered voters in Jersey, and 2.6 million are unaffiliated; of the rest, there are 1.13 million Dems to 865,237 Republicans. "New Jersey is still safe for Kerry," says Cliff Zukin, former director of the Star Ledger–Eagleton poll and now a professor at Rutgers. "But now it's competitive."


Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese and David Botti

 
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