With Bush Trip, Blue New Jersey Is Flashing Red

New Jersey is starting to look like the red state next-door, as yet another poll shows President George W. Bush within striking distance of Senator John Kerry in the unlikelybattleground.

Deeply affected by Sept. 11, disgusted by their Democratic governor and flush from Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, likely voters in New Jersey preferred Mr. Kerry to Mr. Bush by a margin of just 49 percent to 45 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Oct. 19. The poll, which was taken before the President made an unusual visit to South Jersey on Oct. 18, is the latest in a series that show the Garden State as a tight race. Al Gore won the state by 16 percentage points in 2000.

“Not only are we on your doorstep, but we’ve got a foot over the stoop,” crowed Lewis Eisenberg, a co-chairman of Mr. Bush’s New Jersey campaign and one of his top national fund-raisers. “We’re on our way in.”

Here in New York, we know Mr. Eisenberg and a handful of well-heeled, well-connected Republican insiders as the face of New Jersey’s Republican Party. They are sober suburbanites, people with high incomes and 212 office numbers who may hold their nose at some of Mr. Bush’s social positions but love his tax cuts and support his foreign policy. Their leaders are members of the party’s liberal wing, like former Governors Thomas Kean and Christie Todd Whitman. Later, after Mr. Bush’s visit, this group would drive north to a country road in Oldwick—a bit of New England in New Jersey—and follow a torchlit path to Mrs. Whitman’s spacious farm. There, they would meet with First Lady Laura Bush and contribute $500,000 to her husband’s re-election campaign.

But in the sunny afternoon, another of their number, lawyer David Norcross, was leaning on a metal barrier outside the Evesham Recreation Center in Marlton, N.J., standing out in his dark suit and college tie as the red-white-and-blue clad crowd flowed past, copies of The Faith of George W. Bush in hand. Mr. Norcross was talking about the surprising dynamics in his state, which conventional wisdom had put in Mr. Kerry’s camp—until polls showed otherwise.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a real bottom-up set of locally driven things,” said Mr. Norcross, who was chairman of the Republican Party committee that oversaw the G.O.P.’s convention in New York. “This all sounds like regular election bullshit, but I’m amazed.”

Charcoal suits were a rare sight in the shiny new gymnasium where the President delivered a speech about terrorism. American-flag sweaters were more the norm in a crowd that began yelling and pointing skyward at the first whisper of Marine One’s helicopter blades. And while there may yet not be enough of them to carry the state for Mr. Bush in November—he remains a long shot, and neither campaign has bought television time in New Jersey—they reflect a breach in the Democrats’ dominance of the coasts, and a sign that the shifts in American politics that began on Sept. 11, 2001, have yet to settle back into familiar patterns.

“The people of New Jersey were among the first to understand how the world changed,” said Mr. Bush, who spoke in front of a sign with the words “A Safer America” over a flag, an eagle and a montage of likely terror targets: the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Gateway Arch. “On September the 11th, from places like Hoboken and Jersey City, you could look across the Hudson River and see the Twin Towers burning. We will never forget that day, and we will never forget our duty to defend America.”

New Jersey’s Republican crowd cheered Mr. Bush, as it had cheered former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on an Oct. 2 visit, and Vice President Dick Cheney just a week earlier at a stop in the same county, which borders Pennsylvania and the crucial Philadelphia media market. The President was introduced by Bernard Kerik, Mr. Giuliani’s police commissioner. Mr. Bush’s speech consisted of his own pledges of strength and accusations of weakness directed at Mr. Kerry. It was an apt theme for a state whose political psyche is at least as scarred as New York’s by the terrorist attack, which took the lives of 700 New Jersey residents.

“We saw people jumping from the windows,” said Rita Anne Howard, 42, who was teaching Latin in a Catholic school in Jersey City on Sept. 11. “From that day forth, the only issue that matters right now is national security.”

The specter of terrorism seems to have affected New Jersey even more sharply than it has changed the city. The source of Mr. Bush’s continuing political strength in New Jersey, according to the Quinnipiac poll, appears to be a single dramatic difference: 53 percent of New Jersey voters said Mr. Bush would do a better job on terrorism, compared to just 37 percent who ranked Mr. Kerry higher on that issue.

Ms.Howard now teaches at St. Joseph’s High School in Montville, N.J., where one of her students is Mr. Giuliani’s son Andrew, the football team’s place-kicker.

After hearing Mr. Bush’s speech, she stopped in Olga’s Diner in Evesham, a place proud to have baked an inaugural cake for Mr. Giuliani in 1994. To Ms. Howard and the two women sitting with her, the question of terrorism made a vote for the Democrat unthinkable.

“As we sit here in this restaurant, they may have saved us from even having this restaurant attacked,” said Pam Vollrath, 57, a real-estate agent. “They’re doing it the right way: keep it to yourself, just make us all safe.”

Not Just Terror

But if terror fears are the driving factor behind Mr. Bush’s New Jersey support, they’re not the only one. The man who should be Mr. Kerry’s most visible local asset, Governor James E. McGreevey, is otherwise engaged. On Oct. 14, just a few days before Mr. Bush’s visit, Mr. McGreevey was shyly speaking to reporters at a benefit for the Empire State Pride Agenda, Mr. McGreevey’s first gay event since he announced on Aug. 12 that he was a “gay American” and had had an extramarital affair with a man. Mr. McGreevey will resign as governor on Nov. 15, bringing to a close a tenure marked by scandal and by investigations of fund-raisers and former aides.

Mr. McGreevey mumbled nervously about “my life journey,” then took his seat at the head table near two gay power brokers, David Mixner and Jeff Soref, and grinned up at the stage while a puppet from the musical Avenue Q riffed on his predicament and called him “Jimmy.”

“I’m a gay puppet American,” the puppet said.

Mr. McGreevey’s personal revelation would be a distraction from the campaign at best, and Democrats complain that he has done little to put the state’s Democratic machinery to work on behalf of Mr. Kerry. But his real misdeed—appointing his alleged lover as an advisor on homeland security—seemed to demonstrate inattention to a vital issue in New Jersey.

While Democrats control the machinery of state government in Trenton and the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, there is in New Jersey a Republican substratum that has been among the largest per-capita beneficiaries of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts. And it is not as if New Jersey traditionally spurns Republicans—the state went for Republican Presidential candidates from 1968 to 1988.

Those Republican votes weren’t just coming from the well-off suburbanites. The 1,300 faithful at Mr. Bush’s speech could have been as easily drawn from more familiar campaign stops—central Pennsylvania, suburban Ohio or the Florida Panhandle.

“My standards are biblically based,” Randi Knicely was saying in the gym in Marlton. Ms. Knicely, 44, was clutching a big paperback called Become the Impression of the Father —”That’s God,” she explained. Of the President, she said, “I believe he’s a man of God.”

Democrats dismiss the notion that the state’s energized conservatives, allied with anxious suburbanites, can swing the state. They split only on whether Mr. Bush’s visit was a misstep, fueled by wishful thinking, or a feint aimed at demoralizing and distracting Mr. Kerry’s campaign. And they say they won’t bite.

“We’ll look back on this day and say, ‘Jeez, he should have been in Ohio,’” said U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell, a Democrat who represents parts of Passaic and Essex counties in northern New Jersey.

Others say the Kerry campaign may have little choice but to ignore New Jersey and hope for the best. Operatives from both sides said Mr. Kerry can’t afford to imagine a scenario in which New Jersey starts to swing.

“If Jersey gets into play and Kerry has to go and play defense there, it’s over,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant. “It’s hard to see how he pulls this election out if he’s having to dump resources and fight it out in New Jersey.”