AS AN NFL STAR, Jon Runyan had epic battles with New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan on Garden State turf at the Meadowlands.

As a rookie Republican candidate for Congress, though, he'll square off against a Harvard-educated incumbent who's been in the political game for more than 20 years.

Runyan, 36, of Mount Laurel, won the Republican nomination last night in his first foray into politics and will face first-term incumbent U.S. Rep. John Adler in November for the 3rd Congressional District in New Jersey.

Runyan, who won with 60 percent of the vote, said his win was a "stepping stone" toward reclaiming the district during his victory speech in Mount Laurel last night. He also touched on his "lack of experience" in politics.

"Yes, I have no experience in raising taxes over and over. I have no experience increasing the debt in the state and the country," Runyan said to a cheering crowd.

Adler, in a e-mailed statement from Washington, D.C., likened Runyan to a "wealthy extremist" who hasn't laid out a clear platform.

"Mr. Runyan hid from voters, insulted veteran groups, and refused to answer how he stood on the major issues of the day," Adler said.

With the support of the GOP establishment, Runyan defeated Justin Murphy, 44, an attorney and "Reagan Republican" from Medford. Murphy, who had a strong showing in the 2008 district race, had support from many tea-party groups and the endorsement of the Inquirer.

Analysts say national eyes will focus on New Jersey to see whether Runyan can reclaim a seat the GOP once held for more than a century.

Despite lackluster fundraising during the placid primary, analysts say Runyan has an advantage in the conservative-leaning district and an extra push from an anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the country. In November, New Jersey voters ousted Gov. Jon Corzine and elected tough-talking Chris Christie.

But Runyan hasn't exhibited nearly the same fire Christie did during his brutal campaigns - at least not yet.

"Runyan hasn't really proven himself to be a stellar candidate," said Patrick Murray, of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "This is not going to be a case of simply going and being in a parade and showing your star power. There are people out there who don't know who he is. If Runyan doesn't pick up the pace, he could be in for a shock."

Adler, a former state senator and Cherry Hill councilman, easily defeated unknown Democratic challenger Barry Bendar, 54, of Forked River, Ocean County, for his party's nomination yesterday.

The mass of voters who supported the Obama ticket in 2008 helped Adler to his first term after U.S. Rep James Saxton, who held the seat since 1982, decided not to seek re-election. Adler had challenged Saxton in 1990 and lost.

Analysts say Adler is a skilled campaigner, with $2 million in his coffers, whose centrist voting record might be enough to win.

The 3rd District stretches from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean, taking in most of Burlington and Ocean counties, along with Cherry Hill in Camden County.