Ideologically P. Kelly Hatfield isn't much different from her two most high profile opponents in the 7th Congressional District's Republican primary.
Like state Sen. Leonard Lance and former first-daughter Kate Whitman, Kelly considers herself conservative, but with moderate stances on social issues like abortion (all three are pro-choice, with exceptions).
It can be hard to stick out in a field of seven candidates when she doesn't have a 17-year record as a highly visible member of the state legislature, like Lance, or a political lineage going back 100 years, like Whitman. Nor has Hatfield staked a place out well to the right of her opponents, as Scotch Plains Mayor Marty Marks. But Hatfield does have the line in Union County, which accounts for a major portion of the district. And what differentiates her from her ideologically compatible opponents, she said, is three terms on the "front lines" as a Summit Councilwoman and a PhD in microbiology.
"I believe in government close to the people, and because of my years in local government, I understand the impact that Trenton and Washington's decisions have on the people," said Hatfield.
Hatfield said that she's focused on improving the economy through the growth of small businesses, which she fostered by helping to revitalize the downtown of this small, relatively wealthy city.
"I'm the only one talking about small businesses and stimulating the economy," she said, emphasizing the need for tax cuts and incentives and lamenting the state's net loss of 9,700 jobs for the first quarter of this year.
Also unlike Lance and Whitman, Hatfield has fought and won competitive campaigns against Democrats for her council seat – most recently against James Baxley in 2003. Lance has run two competitive races in the past, but both in Republican primaries – for his first term in the Assembly and an unsuccessful congressional bid in 1996.
That puts Hatfield in a better position, she argues, to take on well-funded Democrat Linda Stender in November.
"I think I'm best poised to beat Linda Stender. I think ultimately that's what people should be thinking about," she said.
Hatfield also said that her background as a microbiologist puts her in a unique position to understand the intricacies of the health care system. It also gives her the defense and foreign policy advantage of understanding the types of agents used in bio-chemical warfare.
While Whitman and Lance have been immersed in spats over records in Trenton and negative advertisements, Hatfield said that she's kept her campaign positive through mailers and an aggressive door-to-door campaign schedule.
But she did make a comment that may be perceived as a swipe at Stender, Lance and Whitman's mother.
"I distinguish myself when I talk to the voters as a person who's not tied to the failed policies in Trenton," she said.
Hatfield's war chest is dwarfed by her other major opponents. Her next campaign report will show her with about $77,000 cash-on-hand, $55,000 of which comes from her own pocket. As of April 15th, Lance had $255,654 on hand ($100,000 of it his own), while Whitman had $307,260 (some of which is from maxed out $4,600 donations and needs to be set aside for the general election). Marks had $124,340, $75,000 of which was from a personal loan. She's ahead only of Tom Roughneen, who had about $14,452 on hand. Candidates A. D. Amar and Darren Young have not yet filed reports.
Marks may be in a better position than Hatfield to become a prime contender in this race. Having marketed himself as a "true conservative," he has an automatic appeal to a large part of the Republican electorate, according to Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.
Hatfield, meanwhile, has to compete for the same voters that Lance and Whitman are reaching out to. That will be tough against Lance's organizational support, with his two major county lines, and Whitman's cash (Whitman has the line in Middlesex, which comprises a small portion of the district).
"If you are a conservative voter you have a candidate that you can go to. If you're a moderate voter you have many candidates you can choose from, and in that case organizational support and name recognition plays a bigger role in who you're going to go for," said Murray. "That's going make it tougher for (Hatfield) to be a real contender in this race.