Just a few months ago, New Jersey’s presidential primary – moved up to February in a quest for national political relevance – was looking like a non-event. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani had considerable leads; in the case of the GOP, the winner-take-all primary meant that there were no delegates available to the other contenders.
The Republicans primary still looks like a yawner, albeit now for John McCain. Mitt Romney has not really played in New Jersey – no recent visits, no paid media, and poll numbers that don’t show him in the game. His campaign has attracted endorsements from Republican National Committeeman David Norcross, State Senators Joseph Kyrillos and Leonard Lance, and a few other legislators, but insiders say it’s unlikely that the kind of quiet conservative tide that helped candidates like Jeff Bell or Bret Schundler win statewide primaries will be there for Romney. Ron Paul has assembled a vocal grass roots organization, but as in other parts of the country, his supporters lack numbers; Paul and Mike Huckabee remained in single digits in nearly all independent polls.
The expectation game is low for Romney in New Jersey, but Kyrillos, his state campaign chairman, appears to have boosted his own political career by backing the former Massachusetts Governor. Viewed as a moderate during his twenty years in the legislature, Kyrillos’ early support of Romney has won him some friends among conservatives.
On paper, most of McCain’s establishment support arrived rather quickly last week, after Giuliani ended his campaign – there were no County Chairman who went from Giuliani to Romney, and just a small handful of elected officials. But McCain was not without an organization before he started winning, and several Republicans who stuck with the Senator from Arizona even when his prospects for victory appeared bleak. Well positioned if McCain wins the nomination and the presidency are State Senator Bill Baroni, his state campaign chairman and a McCain 2000 staffer, Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson, State Senator Kevin O’Toole and Sean Kean, Atlantic County GOP Chairman Keith Davis, and GOP fundraisers Lewis Eisenberg and Lawrence Bathgate. Another McCain backer, former Governor Thomas Kean, is making sure that his son, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr., is given a prominent role in the campaign – even though Kean, Jr. was the state Giuliani Co-Chairman.
For Paul, the biggest stakeholder in the GOP primary is Murray Sabrin, a Ramapo College professor who hopes to ride Paul’s coattails to the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. That might be hard to do if Paul doesn’t do well in New Jersey on Super Tuesday.
The Democratic primary has become interesting, and while insiders from both sides suggest that Clinton will likely win, the conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama’s surge in the polls — not long ago, Clinton was ahead by 34 percentage points – is indeed real. Clinton may win a majority of the delegates, but Obama seems poised to win at least a respectable percentage of them.
Still, the sudden competitiveness of New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary suggests that if New Jersey is in play in the general election – it’s always in play for the GOP in October, though hardly ever in November – there may be some changes in store for the Clinton campaign.
Governor Jon Corzine, struggling with his own approval numbers, was an early Clinton supporter. If Obama wins New Jersey, Corzine would become the first sitting Governor to see his preferred candidate lose the state since Brendan Byrne supported Jimmy Carter against Ted Kennedy in 1980.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez might have more on the line that Corzine – and not because some Democrats have pushed for his consideration as a candidate for Vice President. Many pundits view Latino voters as a key to Clinton’s success.
The greatest stakeholders in the New Jersey primary may be “The Group” – six Democratic insiders who have emerged as key players in the Clinton campaign: John F.X. Graham, Alfred DeCotiis, Michael Kempner, Bill Harla, Rev. Reginald Jackson, and Meryl Frank.
The two places to watch on the Democratic side are Essex and Hudson counties, where Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy have taken leading roles in the Obama campaign. If Booker and Healy, the Hudson County Democratic Chairman, can’t deliver pluralities to their candidate, then Obama cannot win New Jersey.
And keep an eye on Bergen County, where Democratic County Chairman Joseph Ferriero is backing Clinton, and Congressman Steve Rothman and State Senator Loretta Weinberg are for Obama.