As the election draws near and the ads grow more vitriolic, the nation’s eyes turn toward New Jersey’s senate race. Republicans hungrily view the Garden State as their best, and perhaps only, chance to pick up a former Democratic seat. Across the aisle, Democrats see this as a chance to regain party stature at home and grab a long-sought majority in Washington. Meanwhile state and national campaigns are blurring as New Jersey voters play the confusing game of “Who’s got my issue?”

To help unsnarl the political knot of the election’s implications, trends, and possible outcomes, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce has called on the director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, David Rebovich. He speaks on “Political Forecasts for New Jersey and the Nation” on Thursday, November 2, at 11:30 a.m. at the Marriott Princeton Hotel. Cost: $35. Call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org.

Rebovich’s childhood home in Perth Amboy was a working class one where politics were constantly discussed, so it was natural for him to enter John Hopkins University, from which he graduated in 1971, to study political science. “I always loved the political/governmental scene,” he says, “but I didn’t want to become a lawyer.” So Rebovich took his political science Ph.D. at Rutgers University and landed a teaching job at Rider University, where he has taught and monitored the New Jersey political landscape for the last 28 years. His courses include such topics as campaign strategies and voting trends.

So what does each party want? What does the public want? And what are their chances of getting it? According to Rebovich, when the last ballot has been cast, the state’s residents may indeed be in a position to reap some long awaited benefits.

Senate photo finish. When Tom Kean Jr. first challenged veteran Democrat Robert Menendez for New Jersey’s open U.S. Senate seat, many on both sides of the aisle saw this as one more case of Republican name dropping. Kean, after all, seemed to have little in his arsenal beyond being the son of very popular Garden State Governor, Thomas Kean. This new Kean and New Jersey did not seem perfect together.

But following the McGreevey resignation, and yet another round of fiscal impropriety scandals, the long-ruling Democrats’ image was severely tarnished. The Republicans, staggering from their own ethical woes at the national level, have leapt to the advantage.

“This is why all the negative ads from Kean’s camp,” says Rebovich. “Kean is doing what he has to do — concentrating hard on the issues of ethical government and property taxes.” It seems to have worked well enough to have brought newcomer Kean into neck-in-neck contention with the established Menendez.

As Kean seeks to sew the anvil of McGreevey to his opponent’s coattails, Menendez is protesting that he has not held state office for over 14 years. Meanwhile, Menendez is finding plenty to shake his own finger at.

“There is no doubt that the majority of people are questioning the Republicans’ competency to govern nationally,” says Rebovich. “From Iraq, to the record deficit, to the handling of hurricane Katrina, the actions of this powerful party have created a political landscape of doubt.” Menendez supporters are pushing the new broom policy, saying that more Democratic seats are the only answer, both to ethics and competence.

At home, Menendez stands on the correct side of the Jersey big four issues: he is pro-environment, pro-stem cell research, pro-choice, and anti-gun. But Kean’s issues of spiraling property taxes and ethics resonate with voters’ main fiscal concern, and with their still-fresh sense of betrayal.

Smart vote. “The voters in this Senate race, and in fact in all of the races, are not making knee-jerk decisions,” says Rebovich. “They have certain interests and the candidates are listening.” This is true on the district level as well as on the state level.

“The Democrats’ great hope in all this is the late-deciding voter,” says Rebovich. “In New Jersey, when folks can’t quite make up their mind, they tend to fall back on their perception of a Democratic party handling things fairly well.” As to the actual outcome, however, Rebovich is reserving all predictions.

Meanwhile back home. Amid all the election furor, state residents are still cocking their heads toward Trenton and wondering what their newly-elected governor can do. Though the state coffers may be nearly drained, Rebovich joins many in seeing Corzine as “the right man for the time, with a lot of good intentions and ability.”

Corzine comes to the governorship bearing a lot of credibility with business based on his success in his own business. But Rebovich points to a great many un-business-friendly proposals brewing in and around the Assembly. In the rush to reform property taxes, many Assemblymen seek to lower residential rates by raising commercial rates across the board. While Corzine seems able to distinguish between the small retail owner and a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical firm, not all of his party are so inclined.

“It is very possible that Governor Corzine is going to first have to convince his own party, before he can help business grow,” says Rebovich.

As the autumn air fills with political tension, and the wooing of voters becomes increasingly distasteful, one little light of hope does seem to shine. In New Jersey the winning candidates will be tied more than ever to their issues, rather than their parties or names. And with that edge, the voters just may get to wag the dog’s tail a little harder in their own favor.

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