``What's all the fuss about California?'' ask New Jersey's political partisans. Though the media seem to be focusing on the West Coast primary, New Jersey is the eighth largest primary state, with 109 Democratic and 64 Republican delegates. The candidates have made frequent visits to the state.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is expected to do well in this state's big urban centers. But the talk is of the close race that could occur between Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Republican George Bush next fall. Because the November outcome is not a foregone conclusion, the Garden State primary is providing parties and campaign organizations the opportunity to unify and rev up for the big battle.
New Jersey is a state of contrasts and this makes it hard to guarantee the fall election to either party.
The state boasts a highly popular Republican governor, Thomas Kean, and an equally popular Democratic senator, Bill Bradley. It is one of the five wealthiest states in the country, but it also has two of the 10 poorest cities. It is a state tied to two metropolitan centers, neither of which are actually in its borders - New York and Philadelphia.
And while issues here are similar to those talked about everywhere in the country, there are some differences.
New Jersey stands out as a state of urban villages, says Joseph Liu of the Jesse Jackson campaign. And as such, voters are slightly more sophisticated, attentive, and open to the Rev. Mr. Jackson's message, he says.
Governor Dukakis, the Democratic front-runner and likely nominee, has been consistently questioned about the environment, day care, drugs, and the economy - issues that have long been part of the New Jersey agenda, says Lorraine Voles, spokesperson for his campaign here. Both Jackson and Dukakis have visited the state frequently in recent weeks, although neither will be here for election results tomorrow.
Democrats behind the scene are touting unity for the November election in order to recapture the state for the Democrats in presidential politics for the first time since Lyndon Johnson ran in 1964.
Ronald Reagan won strongly here in 1984, taking 60 percent of the vote over Walter Mondale. This year several congressional races will likely be directly affected by the presidential race, including a battle between Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) and Republican challenger Pete Dawkins.
The presidential race here will ``absolutely'' be a close one, says Frank Roberts, an assemblyman and state Republican chairman.
``It's an open seat. We've had eight years of a successful Republican president,'' he says. But, he adds, it's a trait of American public opinion that there is a feeling change is beneficial. Voters will look at this election with close scrutiny, he says.
State GOP leaders were chagrined last week when Atlantic City Mayor James Usry, a black Republican and Bush delegate, told an audience with Jackson by his side that Jackson was his first choice, Mr. Bush was his second. Mayor Usry was seen by many GOP strategists as an example that their party is also a party of inclusion.
In a state like New Jersey, where many voters comfortably cross party lines to vote for Governor Kean or Sen. Bradley, the choice of vice-president could make a difference.
``Personally, I have no idea how it will go in November,'' says Jean Carsten of Lawrenceville. She says she will probably vote for Jackson on Tuesday, though she expects Dukakis to be the Democratic nominee. ``It, in a large part, depends on the running mate. I could easily switch to Bush if he chose a good vice-president,'' she says.
Her feeling was echoed by Andra Stamm of South Orange, who intends to vote for Dukakis.
``Reagan did so well last time, but he has fallen behind in popularity. I don't know if [Bush's ties to the President] will pull Bush along. It depends on the running mates.''