CHERRY HILL – Dinged over the weekend with a national story fingering his campaign as the culprit in the inflation of a dummy Tea Party candidate, U.S. Rep. John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) comes out aggressively, showing every sign of wanting to create distinct and concrete contrasts with his GOP opponent, former football star Jon Runyan.
“Pay attention,” Adler tells the crowd. “Who’s better positioned to talk to General Petraeus about the war in Afghanistan?”
Moments later, he mentions that he’s already talked to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu about Iran and does so in the same almost cavalier tone he used to initially soften the crowd, “I worked out here this morning (at the Jewish Community Center), as if it wasn’t obvious.”
Runyan doesn’t crack a grin. He twittered his outrage over the Adler campaign’s shenanigans, and evidently the anger stuck.
The son of a Flint, Michigan working man gongs Adler early with the remark that people are tired of lifelong politicians. “We have to get out of the rut of people making a career of politics,” he says. “Congressman Adler has climbed the political ladder for 21 years.”
“Congressman Saxton was a career politician. Most of our founding fathers were career politicians,” Adler says to boos. “We want people of competence who have actually thought about these issues to help our country.”
But now here comes the offshore oil drilling question.
“With respect to offshore drilling, I’m horrified at the prospect of offshore drilling off the coast of New Jersey,” declares Adler. “We absolutely should have wind farms. …One of the most progressive states in the country. Manufacturing and recreational fishing.”
There are claps. It’s an Adler crowd.
Now it’s Runyan’s turn.
“His opinion has changed three times and mine has always been the same,” says Runyan. “I’ve always been that it’s a states’ rights issue. There are people willing in states to take on those risks of what happpened in the Gulf of Mexico. Who is to say the federal government should step in and prevent the states from taking those risks?”
The Israel question. Remember, this is the Jewish Community Center.
“We need to stand with them to defend human rights and also a nuclear Iran is not going to benefit anyone in this world,” says the challenger.
Adler tries to project comfort with the details alongside his opponent. More name dropping. As part of his effort to project regular guy vibes, he leaves at least one audience member gasping when he sits up in his chair and tells a voter, “Hold on, pal.”
“I’ve been there time and again, and I’m happy Mr. Runyan’s joined us,” Adler says to the Israel question.
Two-state solution? Runyan: yes; Adler: no.
Now here comes the doozy. What would you like to correct for the record?
There’s some nervous laughter out there with the DeStefano story dangling in the political atmosphere and the reporter who gumshoed it from the Courier Post batting out her coverage of the debate.
“This notion that my ninety percent vote record with House leadership is at odds with the district,” says Adler, diffusing the mood. “On the toughest issues, and on every issue, I’m considered one of the most moderate congressmen. It’s gotten me in hot water. I had people yell at me out in the hallway because I voted against healthcare reform.”
Now here comes Runyan.
“He wants to attack me on something the farmland bureau is behind,” says Runyan, referring to his legal farmland tax assessment. “I find it offensive that I’m being attacked for living by the laws of the state.”
Now – what’s happening? – a man in a suit suddenly appears onstage – there is a wave of bewilderment over his presence – is it Peter DeStefano?? Then the emcee announces we are entering the “candidates'” portion of the candidates’ forum. The man – and another one who joins him – remove the cafeteria-sized table and Alder and Runyan are momentarily bereft of elbow holders before the men reappear with a small, more intimate, circular table.
Adler now deflects the inevitable DeStefano question.
“I think it’s very clear he thinks we can afford to cut taxes, balance the budget and not have some impact on social security,” says the congressman to a direct query about his campaign’s invovement in the Tea Party conspiracy.
Groans fill the room.
“Answer the question,” someone shouts.
Speaking in his confident, rapid voice, he doesn’t.
“I don’t disagree with anything the NRA is doing,” Runyan says a moment later. “There is nothing wrong with a law abiding citizen having weapons.”
The names Pelosi and Reid already exhausted, a question from the Runyan campaign asks Adler why he voted for the budgets of then-Gov. Jon Corzine.
Without actually saying his name, Adler slaps at Gov. Chris Christie in his answer.
“Some things in those budgets were troubling, some things were vitally necessary, including rebates for seniors and money for schools,” says the congressman. “There are places we could have cut more aggressively.”
A long line forms now and there are angry faces waiting for a turn at the microphone positioned at the front of the big room a few feet from the two candidates.
“What would you do if North Korea attacked?” asks one man, irritation in his voice as he adds, “Would you respond in kind or sit back like a dove?”
“It all comes down to intelligence,” says Runyan.
“Attack,” says Adler.
Moments later, trying to build on that flare of aggression, the congressman tries to pummel his opponent. “He was for the bailout until his campaign manager said he shouldn’t be against it, then he was against it,” he says. “I was always against it.”
“I’d like to address that,” says Runyan, who’s cut off by the emcee.
Adler moments later says he wants to close tax loopholes allowing businesses to take jobs overseas.
“Loopholes are there for a reason,” argues Runyan.
A voter who must be an MSNBC fan then tries to stump the Republican challenger with a question about the minimum wage, which a week ago burned National Republican Chairman Michael Steele.
“$7.50 no, it’s $7.25,” Runyan says, quickly getting it right on the second try.
A Tea Party person stands at the microphone and he doesn’t look like Peter DeStefano. He unloads on Adler. Why don’t you believe in the Kennedy-Reagan-Bush tax cuts?, lingering on the last of these.
“We did not see private sector job growth,” Adler tells the voter, who immediately starts shaking his head. “Those tax cuts didn’t work.”
Handling another question, Runyan says for the record that he doesn’t believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim or a socialist.
“I do not know his religious affiliation, but it’s a beautiful thing about this country that you have the freedom to do what you want,” says the Republican.
“Mr. Obama is not a Muslim or a socialist,” Adler says.
“He’s a capitlist – not as much of a capitalist as I am,” the congressman adds devilishly.
Now an angry young man stands at the microphone and asks Runyan where he stands on Christie’s school aid cuts.
“What is really changing in this country is the personal responsibility of the parent to educate their child at home,” says the Republican candidate. “The parents have pushed that onto the schools. We have done nothing to change the model.”
The debate lasts nearly two hours. A lot of press packs the seats among the mail carrier shirts here backing Adler and suit and ties and rank and file voters, including a flight nurse from McGuire and at least one small businessman who tries to sneak in an advert for his company to boos. “The New York Times,” a kid tells an inquiring Jewish Community Center volunteer who wants to know the reporter’s paper. Cameras roll. It’s a big night.
“If you are tired of the direction in which this country is being led, then that’s change the people who lead it,” says Runyan.
Then Adler, “I want to stand with veterans, seniors, small businesses, you need reasonable people to end the rancor that is tearing apart American society.”