NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — RICH BOND, the Republican national chairman, put it bluntly on a recent trip here: "It is very difficult to see how George Bush stays as president of the United States without winning the state of New Jersey."
If that is true, Republicans in the White House had better start polishing their resumes. Democrat Bill Clinton, leading by double-digits here, seems close to putting traditionally Republican New Jersey into his pocket.
"I'm pretty discouraged," says Stephen Salmore, a political scientist who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey. "When you're 10 points down, how can you not be pessimistic? I'm a realist.... I think it's very unlikely that Bush will win."
The depth of Mr. Bush's problems are particularly notable in the Garden State. After all, incomes here are far above the national average; Democratic Gov. James Florio has deep political problems and Republicans control two-thirds of the legislature and most county courthouses.
In ordinary times, New Jersey would automatically go into a column of states - like Florida, Ohio, and Texas - that would be reliably Republican.
Bush's problems here are directly tied to the economy, analysts say. Just one year ago, unemployment in New Jersey was at only 6.4 percent. By July, it had rocketed up to 9.8 percent, and, despite some small improvement, it still hovers at 9 percent.
An estimated 360,000 New Jerseyites, equal to the combined populations of Trenton and Newark, are without jobs.
Janice Ballou, director of the Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, says even those disturbing unemployment numbers tell only a small part of the story here. She explains: "We asked people [in recent polls] how concerned they are whether or not they're going to keep their jobs. Four in 10 - 40 percent - say they are `very' or `somewhat' concerned they are going to lose their jobs in the next year. That's incredible."
Why so much fear? It is often rooted in recent family experience. Ms. Ballou says that her polls find that, in 23 percent of the households in New Jersey, someone was on the jobless lines during the past 12 months.
"It's amazing," she says. "People in this state are really hurting.... It's such an eclectic state; we're one of the highest per-capita-income states, and we also have the highest unemployment."
It is this widespread fear, and the political damage it causes, which Bush and the GOP failed to correct in time.
Previous recessions, as in 1982, primarily touched working-class families, who were accustomed to the ups and downs of factory production, construction, and road-building. This time, however, the recession is ripping through all income groups, including middle-class families usually shielded from the worst effects of recessions.
New Jersey built its prosperity on several major industries, including chemical products, pharmaceuticals, fabricated metals, and electronics. The state abounds in big industrial names like AT&T and Exxon. And, as in other parts of the United States, New Jersey's downturn in areas like electronics is being exacerbated by federal defense cutbacks just as the economy was slowing.
New Jersey ranks 10th in defense production, with about one-sixth of its nearly 600,000 manufacturing jobs tied directly to military contracts.
The jolt of defense cuts here isn't as great as in nearby Connecticut. But it still is being felt.
J. Brooke Hern, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Commerce and Economic Development, says: "The end of the cold war is changing everything. The old ways are gone...."
What particularly worries people in this state, like others, is the loss of manufacturing jobs, which are the underpinning of both white-collar and blue-collar employment.
In New Jersey, with 13,000 manufacturing firms, Mr. Hern says: "Manufacturing is the base of real jobs that ... generates more economic activity and more jobs. "Services can't survive without a sound manufacturing base, for that is who they provide services for. We cannot build an economy just shining each others' shoes."
This rapid economic change is having a significant effect on next month's political showdown between Governor Clinton, Ross Perot, and President Bush. It is Clinton who talks about "jobs, jobs, jobs," while the major focus of the Bush campaign has been an attack on Clinton's character.
While Professor Salmore, who teaches at Rutgers, says he expects Republicans to make major gains in races for Congress here, the top of the ticket is struggling.
As a Republican, Bush would ordinarily run 2 percent stronger here than nationwide. But with Bush trailing by more than 10 points in the national polls, that 2-point boost here may not be enough.
What frustrates Jersey Republicans is that Bush has not fashioned a strong message to close the gap. "It's getting late," Salmore says. And neither bashing Clinton's character, nor trashing his economic and health-care plans, seems to be enough.