Is New Jersey competitive in Feb. 5 GOP primary?

The Monmouth University/Gannet New Jersey poll released this morning seems to have turned the conventional wisdom of New Jersey presidential politics on its head, especially on the Republican side, where John McCain has pulled even with Rudy Giuliani. But none of the state’s most prominent presidential candidate backers expressed much surprise today.

The most shocking number in the poll put John McCain leading 29-25% — within the 4.5% margin of error. Just one month ago, according to a Quinnipiac poll, Giuliani had a 22 point lead over McCain, while three months ago that lead was 36 points. And in a Bergen Record poll published Sunday, Giuliani led McCain by 16 points.

It’s welcome news to McCain’s New Jersey backers, but it hasn’t taken state Sen. Bill Baroni aback.

“I wouldn’t call it shocking,” said Baroni, who also supported McCain in his 2000 primary bid against George W. Bush. “We’ve been working very hard sort of under the radar for two years to get ready for the next two weeks. We’ve been working day-to-day and town to town, many times under the radar screen, getting ready to see the effect that NH and Michigan will have on NJ – we’re very excited where we are.”

McCain’s New Jersey roster is far from empty — in addition to Baroni, he has the support of State Senators Sean Kean and Kevin O’Toole, former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr., and fundraiser Lew Eisenberg (Kean Sr.’s son, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., backs Giuliani).

But Cape May County Republican Chairman David Von Savage, a major Giuliani supporter who engineered the Republican primary’s winner take all rule change, still has patience with the Giuliani campaign’s strategy of first winning Florida and building momentum from there.

Von Savage said that the amount of support shown for Giuliani in early polls was probably overstated, but that his support in this latest poll, in light of his almost compete lack of media coverage over the last three weeks, is probably understated.

“I don’t think that they’ve taken it for granted. I think it’s part of the southern strategy, which is to marshal your resources and play to win in Florida and then the new Super Tuesday,” he said. “Granted, it’s high risk, but I have full faith in (Giuliani Campaign Manager Mike) DuHaime, (Senior advisor Ken) Kurson and (National Political Director Mark) Campbell.”

Rather, Von Savage prefers to compare the way the campaign is run to the climactic battle scene of the movie Braveheart, when Mel Gibson, as William Wallace, employs a rope-a-dope battle strategy.

The Giuliani campaign – in this analogy the Scots – will start their true offensive with an impressive showing in Florida.

“They were about to be overrun, and he marshaled his troops and said ‘steady, steady, steady’ to the point when they were about to be overrun. And they pulled it off,” said Von Savage. “Similarly you can use that analogy with the Giuliani strategy.”

But to Monmouth University Patrick Murray, who conducted today’s poll, Giuliani’s numbers in Florida – where according to a recent Quinnipiac poll he’s neck and neck with McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney – should be troubling.

“That’s horribly bad news (for Giuliani), because he’s put all his eggs in the Florida basket there,” he said. “When you look at how some of those things have played out, the old adage ‘out of sight out of mind’ is what’s played out in this poll.”

Murray said that the poll’s breakdown showed that many of McCain’s New Jersey supporters are likely primary voters, while those who stick with Giuliani tend to pay less attention to the national political scene. Murray acknowledged, however, that a Giuliani victory in Florida would put him back in the news – and would attract many New Jersey voters back to him.

“This is incredibly fluid,” he said.

The poll, which was conducted between September 9th and 13th, could provide nothing more than a snapshot of the state at an extremely volatile time. It remains to be seen whether another poll will confirm it.

“This could be a finicky public just reacting to the fact that McCain’s been in the news and he’s gotten all the momentum, and it’s also the Achilles heal of Rudy’s strategy. He’s been out of the limelight – he better hope he can win Florida and gain some momentum,” said Seton Hall University political science professor Joe Marbach, a contributor.

Meanwhile, the same poll shows Mitt Romney ever so slightly trailing Mike Huckabee in the Garden State. For Romney’s most visible New Jersey backer, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a lot is riding on tonight’s Michigan primary results.

” I’m not surprised that there’s a rescramble. I’m hopeful for Mitt in Michigan tonight – it’s a close race,” said Kyrillos, who pointed out that even though Romney has only one won contest – in Wyoming—he currently leads the pack in delegates, with 30.

“I think this is obviously not going to be apriority target state for Mitt. But I’ve always felt in a one-on-one contest, Rudy vs. Mitt, it would be a very interesting election in New Jersey. And I think in a one on one contest with John McCain it would be a very interesting election,” he said.

Is New Jersey competitive in Feb. 5 GOP primary?