In N.J. Senate race, 'swing' county is a key

Monmouth County could go either way in a big race that may determine Senate majority.

Almost every state has a county that swings. It votes Republican one election; Democrat the next. And, while winning that county doesn't guarantee victory, it may be a good indication of whether a candidate has sufficiently broad appeal to win a state-wide battle.

Welcome to Monmouth County, which fits that bill in the Garden State.

The county, home to many independent voters, is a window on one of the tightest and most important races in the nation: the battle for Sen. Robert Torricelli's seat.

To win in New Jersey – and quite possibly have an impact on the complexion of the US Senate – Republican challenger Doug Forrester and former Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg will have to win many of these votes. And, so far, it appears neither one of them has made much of an impression.

As he sips a cup of coffee at No Joe's Café, Fred Cooley, a writer and sports marketer, says he has no idea whom he's going to vote for. He does not know what Mr. Forrester stands for and he didn't think Mr. Lautenberg did a good job when he represented the state for 18 years. "I'm an independent, and right now neither party has won my vote," he says.

This may be one of the reasons why early polls show the race to be very tight.

Undecided voters

This week, a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll found Mr. Lautenberg leading Forrester among potential voters but dead even among likely voters. Only two weeks ago, the same poll found Forrester held a 13-point lead over Mr. Torricelli. Because he was so far behind in the polls, Torricelli dropped out of the race. After court challenges that went as far as the US Supreme Court, Lautenberg replaced Torricelli on the ballot.

Many of those who planned to vote for Forrester are really voting against Torricelli, who was severely chastised by the US Senate for accepting gifts from a donor in return for help with a business problem. That's true of Joy Diamond, a real estate agent from nearby Rumson. As she thumbs through some old photos at Dorn's Photo Shop, she says, "I'm not so sure what Forrester represents."

Ms. Diamond is not alone. New Jersey political experts believe Forrester needs to define himself – especially in swing counties such as Monmouth, an affluent, highly educated county that encompasses a diverse population ranging from commuting businessmen to clam diggers. This group has traditionally been concerned about taxes, schools, the environment, and safety. "Our independent voters want low taxes and excellent government services," says David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics.

A little fuzzy around the issues

For many voters, where Forrester stands on these issues is still a mystery. "With four weeks to go, the electorate wants to get to know him better," says Mr. Rebovich. "The fact that he is not Torricelli is not enough of a foundation."

So far, that message has not made it through to Forrester's planners. Yesterday, he attacked Lautenberg for his votes on military spending. He is trying to link Lautenberg to Torricelli, even though it is widely known throughout the state that the two men did not like each other. And, Lautenberg served in the military while Forrester did not. "He is a Jewish-American who served in the military, and Forrester must be careful that he does not get people upset that he's crossed the line," says Mr. Rebovich.

Attacking Lautenberg could be a dangerous strategy, says Cliff Zukin, a political scientist at the Eagleton Institute. "When Lautenberg left the Senate, he was well regarded, with polls showing 60 percent of the voters thought he did a good job," says Mr. Zukin. "He exited the stage gracefully; he was not defeated or humiliated."

A familiar name on the ballot

Lautenberg also appeals to New Jersey's sizable senior-citizen population.

As he tries to remember Forrester's name, 93-year-old Ben Rassas says, "Well, whoever he is, he's made no impression." Mr. Rassas, who is a registered Republican, plans to vote for Lautenberg. "The name is going to get him in," says Rassas, who still goes to work at a Pontiac dealership bearing his name.

In fact, Judy Lanza, working at the Slope Brook farm stand in nearby Colts Neck, says she was sad when Lautenberg left the US Senate. She's on her feet nine hours a day, and the issues she's most interested in are Medicare and prescription-drug programs. "I'm voting for whoever does the most for me," she says.

Because of his age, there is some concern that Lautenberg won't complete this full term. So far, he has made no commitment to remaining in the Senate for a full six years. "This is a delicate issue," says Rebovich. "But New Jersey residents don't want to go through this again in two years."

The polls show that the last-minute switch has made some voters, especially Republicans, mad. The latest Eagleton Poll found that 77 percent of the Republicans say they now plan to vote in the election compared to 61 percent two weeks ago.

That's the case with Emmett Connolly, an auditor, who is a registered Republican but considers himself an independent. "I'm angry at the Democrats for not playing by the rules," he says as he waits outside a restaurant.

In fact, the quality of the campaign so far has turned off Justin Strohmenger, a shoe salesman at If the Shoe Fits, in Red Bank. "Neither one of them has really addressed the issues," says the bearded young man. "I think I'm going to vote for the Green Party."

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