At a filling station in Mount Laurel where a gallon of regular gas cost $3.89, 3rd District Congressional candidate state Sen. John Adler stood with House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to address rising energy costs.
It was type of retail campaign stop Adler has been privileged to engage in so far. While he's unopposed by any Democrats in a primary, he's sitting on a $1.1 million war chest while three Republican rivals with a fraction of his funds slug it out in a primary.
Emanuel, who revealed that he had unsuccessfully courted Adler to run for the seat in 2006 against now retiring Rep. Jim Saxton (when he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), said that Adler would help bolster a Democratic majority to repeal $17 billion in tax subsidies to oil companies. While Democrats have faced criticism for the dramatic rise of gas prices since they took over the majority a year and a half ago, Emanuel noted that they passed a bill to increase automotive fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years.
But attempts to repeal the subsidies have been stricken down twice by a presidential veto.
"We put those policies in place when gas was going down to about $10 or $15 a barrel. Oil companies said it was not economically viable to drill at those costs," said Emanuel. "That made sense at $10 a barrel but not at $135 a barrel. President Bush has vetoed it twice. We're going to re-pass it down in Congress. The question is if we had more John Adler's, we could override that veto."
Emanuel has given Adler $14,000 from his campaign committee, and said that he's rounded up friends and colleagues to give him an additional $6,000. He plans to attend a Friday event with Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who is running in New Jersey's 7th Congressional District – the other one targeted by national Democrats.
Adler pointed to his own work in Trenton to push for increased mileage and emission standards for cars, and said he can put that to work in Washington. He said that, if elected, he'll work to decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil, divert subsidies to oil companies to research for alternative forms of energy, and create tax incentives for cleaner, more fuel efficient cars.
Although Republican rivals Chris Myers, Jack Kelly and Justin Murphy have so far been forced to devote most of their campaign resources to fighting each other, Myers campaign staffer Kristin Antonello showed up to hand out press releases criticizing Adler.
"Under the Corzine-Adler Trenton Democrats, New Jersey's economy and taxpayers have suffered immensely," said Myers in a press release. "Voters won't be fooled by Adler's lame attempt at an election-year extreme makeover."
State Democrats have made it clear that they would prefer that Adler run against Kelly, an Ocean County Freeholder, than Myers, an executive at Lockheed Martin. Just yesterday, the Myers campaign decried the third mailer Democrats sent to Republican primary voters that criticizes Myers.
Kelly and Myers have been locked in what may be the nastiest primary battle in the state, with accusations of patronage and pay-to-play flying from both sides. While that's good news for Democrats, who are watching the two spend the comparatively small war chests they've accumulated, Adler claimed to take no joy in it.
"I've been surprised at the tone of the Republican primary. I think this election should be about how we build up New Jersey's families, economy and future, and how we can do the same for the entire country," he said. "I think when you deviate from a discussion of those national issues of importance right now, you're not showing respect for the voters."
While not addressing Kelly and Myers specifically, Emanuel said that the Republican infighting isn't unique to New Jersey.
"I will say that across the country Republicans are fighting among each other. The bulk of them though, regardless of the fight, don't want to change the course of the country from the one George Bush has set for years," he said.
But that other, much higher profile Democratic in the primary race is not comparable, said Emanuel, who has called Barack Obama the "presumptive nominee" but remains officially neutral in the race. (Adler was an early supporter of Obama.) Rather, the Clinton-Obama fight has led to increased voter registration and participation, and Emanuel sees no reason to call for Clinton to drop out.
And numbers released by the Democratic State Committee seem to reinforce that notion, at least on first glance. In the traditionally Republican 3rd district, according to the DSC, Democrats now have a voter registration advantage of 15,297. Prior to the current presidential race, Republicans had a registration advantage of 12,488.
"We used to bemoan low voter participation. All of a sudden voters are interested and we're supposed to cut it out?" said Emanuel.
But could a heated Republican primary increase Republican participation in the district the same way? Emanuel didn't think so.
"If they have a record turnout like we had, you have an argument. If they have an anemic turnout, that will also tell you something," he said.
Emanuel, however, demurred from saying whether he would offer help to any of the New Jersey Democratic congressional candidates in less competitive races.