The water towers jut against the skyline over the billboards here, part of that sprawl of roadway called Route 9 crammed between the Shore and the Raritan, a battered lifeline to a gas station culture of blimped-up commercial ratables and fading blue collar towns turned service sector central.
In Old Bridge a billboard says "Kyrillos 2007," and farther south of the river there’s "Hornik for Mayor" and car dealership ads – over 76% of the people here drive to work alone each day – and restaurant shacks and "Re-elect Kleinberg," and what appear to be undocumented workers and others stranded on bus stops looking at the drivers in the cars backed bumper-to-bumper, who look back and wait for the colors to change.
Amid the slogans of all sizes Thursday, a low-lying phalanx of lawn signs jumped into view in Manalapan in front of the Excelsior catering hall: Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. Yes, he was here, here to support the district 12 GOP ticket of Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck and her running mates, Declan O’Scanlon and Caroline Casagrande.
Republicans from all corners of the county arrived to greet America’s mayor, the man, in the words of GOP Assembly candidate Caroline Casagrande, who "led this nation in its darkest hour."
Citing crushing local property taxes – an average of $6,000 annually in Marlboro, the district’s most populous town – Beck and her running mates are trying to blow the doors off the Democratic Party machine here, which has lugged in pillboxes of money to ensure a Karcher victory. By countering with Rudy, Beck figured she could flex a little muscle of her own.
"This downtrodden state is embarrassed," said Beck of corruption in public office, and a record that includes 100 convicted officials in five years. "I won’t back down. …The Democrats are spending $4 million – the most money ever delivered into a legislative district."
They need the money, Beck said, in part because, "My opponent’s record does not reflect the interests of the citizens she was supposed to be representing."
Then she summoned Giuliani, a door behind the stage swung open, and the former mayor of New York emerged to applause.
Standing at the podium in front of the crowd and with the district 12 team at his side, he quickly established a government versus people dynamic for breaking down the biggest issues confronting the country. The Democrats like government. The Republicans believe in people.
"There is a consistency to what Republicans can do whether you elect us to state Senate, or the Assembly, or president," Giuliani said to cheers."We’re the party that understands, you have to lower taxes in order to give people a little more money, because when you do that, that’s how you create more jobs."
On the same day Giuliani raised the roof with Beck and her running mates, Karcher held a low-key press conference outside her Freehold campaign headquarters off Route 79, where she stood with union workers and pledged to pass paid family leave.
"Those who are confronted with family emergencies such as sudden illness or accidents should be allowed to care for their loved ones without putting their job at risk," said Karcher. "No one should be forced to choose between their job and a family member in need of care."
Karcher noted her opponent’s active resistance to what the senator sees as a critical family improvement measure.
"Assemblywoman Beck worked against paid family leave as a lobbyist and now, as a legislator, she continues her opposition," Karcher said. "On this issue, she is being consistent. Unfortunately, she is consistently wrong."
Depicted by her opponents – and people in her own party – as John Kerry with a wire, Karcher has had a difficult time in this race shaking the blue blood tag within the back-slapping egalitarian beer froth of the New Jersey political establishment.
On Thursday, she wore a pair of oversized dark sunglasses, the kind that fighters use to hide the scar tissue around their eyes when they’ve been in a 12-round fight, but it remains a fight here, a point acknowledged by Greenbriar debate moderator Stanley Rosen when he lamented the fact that after the new year, "one of these fine women will not be representing us."
Whatever the image expanded by shots of her enormous Marlboro estate in Beck’s damning television ad against her, whatever populist appeal the Republicans mustered today with the presence of the erstwhile Italian Catholic turned crime fighter, turned big city mayor Giuliani, Karcher insists her commitment to the public interest clearly sets her apart from Beck, a longtime Trenton lobbyist.
"I’m standing out here with nurses, firefighters, teachers, workers, and she’s got insiders coming in to invade Manalapan," she said.
Family leave insurance or Senate Bill S2249, would enable people to receive up to two-thirds of their usual wage while taking 10-12 weeks of paid leave over a 12-month period to care for a child, an elderly parent or a sick relative. No new taxes. No new bureaucracy, the Democrats say.
"This legislation helps workers take care of their families and is beneficial to business at the same time," said Jim Mione, of United Auto Workers Local 595, who attended the press conference to back Karcher. Mione stressed that the money would come out of a general fund that the workers pay into, not from employers.
According to the provisions of the legislation, which Democratic Party leadership in both houses has held up, workers would pay an additional sum into the state’s Temporary Disability Insurance fund: 28 cents a week for someone making $7.15 an hour to $1.81 a week for the highest paid workers. For most it would cost a little more than a candy bar a week.
"Privatization and greed are the norm and compassion is in short supply," said Ray Stever, a steel worker and president of the state Industrial Union Council. "This is just common sense relief for working families."
"She gets it," Stever said of Karcher. "She just gets it."
Outside headquarters, a goateed A.J. Sabath operated like Machiavelli in motion on the eve of his boss’ boots on-the-ground appearance here in the 12th district at an East Windsor breakfast with seniors.
"Who would you rather hang out with?" Sabath said of Senate President Richard Codey. "Be honest. Codey or Giuliani?"
At the Excelsior a little later in the afternoon, Beck and her confidants felt pumped up about the race, particularly following the last debate on Wednesday night..Whatever populist emanations from the other side, Beck the Erie, Pa. Catholic school girl whose parents flew into town yesterday, runs as the underdog.
"Karcher’s crumbling," O’Scanlon said. "You take a look at those two candidates last night. Jen walked up there alone. Karcher had a circle of coaches around her, prepping her. As for the debate itself, come on. Night and day."
In terms of his own Assembly contest, O’Scanlon regrets that his Democratic opponents,
Assemblyman Michael Panter and Amy Mallet, went underground when he called for a debate, and said their silence amounts to their admission of shame before the voters.
"When we’re elected, we’ll be the ones pushing for debates, not running from our records," O’Scanlon said.
Before Beck, O’Scanlon and Casagrande stood on stage with Giuliani, Monmouth County Republican Party Chairman Adam Puharic floated into the Excelsior and did a double take in front of a mirror as he straightened his tie, exuding confidence.
"We’re going to win," he said of the races in his political domain, where voters went for Bush over Kerry by 10 percentage points in the 2004 presidential election. "We’re going to win in the 11th, 12th and 13th. They’re all going to win: my freeholders, my sheriff and my clerk. Big. Clerk’s going to win big."
Puharic said he liked this race in the 12th because he believes the Republicans will pick up a seat here with a Beck victory. "When I see $2.5 million wheeled in by Trenton Democrats and they’re still tied in the polls, I see that they’ve been completely ineffective," he said.
Giuliani’s people started arriving, mixing with GOP sheriff’s candidate Kim Guadagno, district 11 Assembly candidates David Rible and Mary Pat Angelini, and suburban mayors, including Robert Kleinberg of Marlboro, who was overhead comparing Giuliani to U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
The presidential candidate’s northeast spokesman, Jeff Parker, entered the second-floor room. Giuliani had been fund-raising in New Jersey all day, and after Manalapan he was scheduled to go to New Brunswick, Parker said.
"We’re ramping up efforts in Michigan, and we’re made a good showing in New Hampshire," he said of the campaign.
"Yes, Romney’s ahead in Iowa,’ he conceded, "but he’s poured a ton of money in there – his own money. In the money-raising game, we’re doing very well. Every quarter, we raise the most. Of course, you understand, with Romney, it’s a lot of his own money. For us, every state’s important. Rudy’s committed to a 50-state strategy."
Giuliani put the exclamation point on that too, when he endorsed Beck and her team and then spoke to the ramifications of a Giuliani primary victory for New Jersey.
"If I get nominated, we’re going to have a real presidential campaign in the State of New Jersey," said Giuliani. "If one of the others of my opponents… gets nominated, they’re going to close down their office in New Jersey the day after they’re nominated. And it actually makes sense for them to do that because they’re going to have to concentrate on 30, maybe 35 states, and do the old strategy we’ve used for 16-20 years where we really don’t run in (New Jersey and other states)."
For Parker and other Giuliani backers, the issue comes down to executive experience. The former mayor of New York City oversaw the 17th largest economy in the world, and succeeded in cutting the crime rate and cutting taxes.
"Working with an overwhelmingly Democratic council, he got stuff done," Parker said.
The district 12 Republicans’ campaign spokesman, Tom Fitzsimmons, navigated through the growing crowd, operating, taking care of people, moving up to the front of the room to get the door for Giuliani on cue. Fitzsimmons felt the turmoil in his own family for years here as his father dealt with whatever hardship they had by working and working harder. He gets Giuliani, likes the work ethic, small government message, feels it.
And Giuliani made it understood he gets Fitzsimmons’ candidates.
"If you send them to Trenton, you’ll make sure that they will work very, very hard to do something here, and people all over New Jersey need very badly, and that is to lower your property taxes," he said.
The crowd went for the stage in the aftermath and among the outstretched hands and cameras clicking could be seen a baseball presented for signing, and in the middle of everything, Beck and Giuliani descended side by side with O’Scanlon and Casagrande behind them.
The fanfare is fine, said Karcher, who welcomes both U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Codey to her side for some campaign time on Friday. But Giuliani the presidential candidate has aligned himself with an administration whose judgement in matters of concern to regular people has been wanting and hazardous, in Karcher’s view.
"The last time I checked, Rudy Giuliani supports the President on the war in Iraq," Karcher said. "He supported the troop surge, which I rejected. My opponent had an opportunity to denounce the war and the troop escalation and she declined." The mismanaged war, said the senator, is costing Americans $3 billion a week.
The campaign season went on with four days to go, somewhere on the side of a highway, Route 79 or 9, the connecting point in an otherwise dislocated political landscape.