MOUNT LAUREL – "It’s the economy, stupid," proved a winning formula for Bill Clinton, and now state Sen. John Adler (D-Camden) runs with the same background theme in this 3rd Congressional District.
It might be a tough slog here for Adler, 48, where a Democrat has not represented the district since 1882. But in the waning Bush era, there is opportunity; and Adler means to make a sagging economy in W’s last months the primary issue as he heads toward his Nov. 4th general election showdown with Medford Mayor Chris Myers.
With 15,000 newly registered Democrats coming out of the Feb. 5th Democratic Primary, the figures embolden Adler and his allies as the long-serving senator hopes to truss a seat vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Jm Saxton (R-3).
Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the 3rd -111,298 to 100,640 – in a year when the presence of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Il.) at the top of the ticket means Adler’s people are making strategic forays into the district’s bigger blue vote strongholds- Willingboro and Pemberton – to register even more new voters.
Still, Adler has to overcome the stigma of being a veteran Trenton insider at a time when the legislature’s approval rating hovers around 25%, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.
A state budget that has expanded from $23 billion to nearly $34 billion since 2002 pits Adler against some skeptical voters in this sprawling backyard of Fort Dix/McGuire AFB, who might be wooed by Gulf War hero and Lockheed Martin vice president Myers.
Facing a crowd of 100 people packed into the Mount Laurel Library for a town hall meeting on Monday evening, Adler went global early, or at least to national issues – before the mixed crowd’s inevitable tug back to perceived statehouse woes.
"You ought to worry about it (the country) right now," said the Democratic candidate. "Bread and milk and eggs are up, amazingly, from a year ago and you wonder what’s happening.
"A lot of problems are converging on our great America at the same time. Many Americans are without health insurance. They have to decide if they should skip meals so they can take their child to the pediatrician."
Met later by a question from what Adler’s staff described as a Republican audience member, Adler said of his "aye" vote on the state budget, "I was delighted we actually brought state spending down (by $600 million)."
He applauded Gov. Jon Corzine for realigning the schools funding formula for the 21st Century – something he said he had advocated for years. "We should have done it 15 years ago, but we didn’t," Adler said.
There have been missed opportunities in Trenton, to be sure, he says, some of them related to past administrations, including those run by Republicans. But none of that adds up to the colossal strategic miscalculations of Bush’s war in the Middle East, and its negative impact on America’s working class.
Opposed to the War in Iraq from the beginning, Adler descried the funneling of federal dollars into public works projects in Bagdad even as the middle class in Mount Laurel gets further squeezed and the domestic infrastructure weakens.
"We need a middle class that has a renewed sense of optimism about our economy right now," said Adler, the son of a Haddonfield dry cleaner. "The middle class does not want four more years of a Bush economy, coupled with rising fuel costs and a broken healthcare system."
A lawyer and family man with four sons, the candidate told his audience there are not enough representatives in Congress who feel the struggles of regular people. With Bush in office, the wealthy have not bourne their fair share of taxes, Ader said.
"Republicans want to give tax subsidies of $17 billion to oil companies with record high profits," added Adler campaign manager Raiyan Syed.
During the question and answer period after Adler’s opening statement, Morris Zupan of Mount Laurel flagged the state senator’s field director for the microphone, rose and asked Adler how he’s going to deflect GOP attacks that he’s a tax-and-spend Democrat.
Adler went straight to the Iraq War: a mismanaged action that continues to deplete American lives and treasure.
A lot of GOP voters agree, a helpful concurrence in a district whose independent voters lean heavily Republican.
Polls show 51% of Republican voters say "going to war was the right thing to do," while 41% say it was a mistake, the same GOP voters who by a two-to-one margin previously said that going to war in Iraq was the "right thing to do," according to last month’s Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll.
"We’re still going to be funding this war a generation from now," lamented the senator.
Pressed to discuss his own record of fiscal responsibility, Adler said he was the first Democrat to express opposition to Gov. Jon Corzine’s monetization and securitization plans for toll roads. He also voted last month against borrowing $3.9 billion for new schools construction, although Myers criticized Adler for failing to vote against a bill that would prohibit all borrowing without voter approval.
Throughout his discussion with the audience, Adler repeatedly cited other failures of Bush, who twice vetoed a bill to ensure children under the provisos of the State Children Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), another mistake, in Adler’s view.
But Zupan told Adler he feared Democrats in the 3rd District wouldn’t support Obama for president, and would peel off to vote for split tickets.
"There is an anti-Obama feeling," said Zupan, a member of the Mount Laurel Democratic Party. "Voters really want to vote for Adler, but instead of voting for him, some people would just come straight down from McCain to Myers. I want him to have a strong campaign to overcome that."
"For anyone who’s inclined to split their ticket, please vote for me," dead-panned Adler, who was the first elected official in line to endorse Obama for president.
Toward the end of the evening, Adler’s campaign sign buckled behind him before the tape gave way and the sign bulged outward and slid down the wall.
Swiftly minimizing any sense among the audience members that the fall was a metaphor for the Democrats on old GOP turf, Adler, who was answering a question about the middle class, said of the sign: "Symbolic of our sagging economy."