New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. won't stop smiling – despite the crush of reporters aggressively lobbing questions at him.
Why did he pull out of a League of Women Voters debate? Was he calling his opponent corrupt? Was he running a smear campaign?
The candidate doesn't answer directly, sticking with the script that he thinks will win him a US Senate seat in usually "blue" New Jersey. "Corruption is a significant issue. How many more times do we have to see politicians taken out of county courthouses with raincoats over their heads?" he asks.
Mr. Kean, a state senator, is the GOP's best hope for picking off a Democratic Senate seat in November – and the outcome could determine whether Republicans retain control of the Senate. The son of a popular former Republican governor, boyish with a halting delivery, he's running neck and neck with his opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey's first Hispanic US senator.
New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1977. But moderate Republicans can do well here, particularly on a statewide level, because 55 percent of New Jersey voters identify themselves as independents.
That huge group of swing voters is making this Senate race one of the closest in the country. Three weeks ago, polls put Kean up by 3 percentage points. By Friday, Senator Menendez had pulled ahead, 49 percent to 45 percent, according to a poll by Quinnipiac University.
"It still goes either way. There are still a lot of voters that are yet to be heard from," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Two themes define this race. One is Kean's allegation that Menendez is too close to New Jersey's notorious political bosses, and could be corrupt himself. (As evidence, Kean cites the fact that a US attorney has subpoenaed records from a community development group that once rented office space in a building Menendez owned.)
The other is the direction of the entire country, and whether Democratic control of the Senate would change it for the better. That's the theme Menendez likes. He says Kean is using smear tactics to divert attention from Kean's support for the Iraq war, privatizing Social Security, and President Bush, whose approval rating hovers around 30 percent in New Jersey. "When you're wrong on all of the issues and you don't want to discuss them, that's how you avoid [them]," says Menendez.
But Menendez, who served seven terms in the House before being appointed in January to fill an empty Senate seat, adamantly denies Kean's corruption charges. (For instance, he says he had cleared the real estate deal in question with the House ethics committee.) His biography and a political ad also note his role in leading a slate of reformers to clean up corruption in his hometown of Union City.
The outcome of this election could turn on a question of which issues New Jersey voters care about most: ethics in government, or the Iraq war and giving Democrats control of the US Senate.
The choice is clear for Democrat Ann Brady, who listened to Kean last week at a public appearance in Trenton. She's voting for the Republican to send a signal that she doesn't approve of New Jersey's seamy political culture. "I have watched Mr. Menendez's political career for years, and I find his base of truth and political actions to be questionable," she says.
But Edgar Navarro, a businessman who's always leaned Republican, is also switching sides. "The Republicans have had a chance for eight years, and we have too many problems now," he said at a Menendez event in Lawrence. "So I have more hope for Menendez. He's the guy."