Somerset GOP digs in to defend territory

SOMERSET – Field general Dale Florio goes over the numbers again in Somerset County Republican Party headquarters. He doesn’t appear overly confident but he believes his party can comfortably fend off the other side, which is making a big play here in a presidential year when their national ticket has a double digit lead in New Jersey.

In the next room, three volunteers work the phones as pedestrians blow in from Main Street and pick up handfuls of “McCain-Palin” lawn signs.

“I’ve been pleased with the energy level – that energy surge close to Election Day,” says Florio, Republican Party county chair, looking up from his desk. “You’d have figured with the war, the economy and the last eight years that we’d have less excitement, but McCain is his own man. Quite frankly, with the Obama campaign’s focus elsewhere, it’s taken the Democrats’ focus away from New Jersey.”

For the first time enjoying a slim lead in numbers of declared voters – 47,262 to 46,477 – Democrats want to try to win a pair of freeholder seats here in Somerset, and turn out some big numbers for Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood), their 7th Congressional District candidate.

Arguing that the bulk of voters still lean Republican and buoyed by state Sen. Leonard Lance’s (R-Hunterdon) efforts against Stender, Florio remains unimpressed by the opposition.

“The number one issue is property taxes,” he says, in a nod to the freeholders’ contest. “The Democrats have tried to engage on that, but the record of both their candidates is fairly dismal.”

He concedes President George W. Bush hurt the GOP politically, but to date the Democrats have been unable to translate their bulked up numbers into a significant victory; mostly because those 71,245 independent voters still trend Republican, Florio argues.

He anticipates withstanding the Wall Street crisis, which he admits has voters on edge.

“I think what’s happened with the stock market – which a lot of New Jerseyans play – scares people,” Florio says. “That has not been to McCain’s advantage. While I’m not sure what Obama’s offering people as an alternative, people are worried.”

In the next room, Janet Linnus, the organization’s executive director, won’t argue that it’s gotten harder to defend traditional Republican turf.

“A lot of New Yorkers are moving in and the demographics are changing,” she says. “A lot of new senior citizens’ complexes have been built – several of significant size in Franklin, for example. A lot of those new residents are Democrats.”

Republicans used to win their freeholder races by 10,000 votes. Now they’re winning by 1,700 and 1,800.

But the McCain-Palin signs dominate the landscape, where McMansions tower over winding, leafy roads populated by vultures feeding on deer carcasses. This old Millicent Fenwick/Christie Todd Whitman country still radiates the good life.

As for McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom a New York Times/CBS News poll shows 59 percent of voters don’t find qualified to be vice president, “she’s fired up the base here,” Florio says.

Somerset GOP digs in to defend territory