For once, it looks as though New Jersey is more than an ATM for presidential candidates.

"We're very, very relevant," said Democratic State Committee Chairman Joseph Cryan, also a Union County assemblyman.

His evidence is last week's visit from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has a lead in New Jersey, and a planned visit from Sen. Barack Obama, who is trying to catch her.

With the New Jersey primary scheduled for Feb. 5, moved up from the traditional first Tuesday in June, the state's electorate is positioned to weigh in while the races are still in flux.

New Jersey is one of 22 states from Alabama to West Virginia holding primaries or caucuses or a convention on that day - enough to give Feb. 5 the tag Super Duper Tuesday. New Jersey is among the most delegate-rich states voting Feb. 5; in sheer numbers of delegates it takes a backseat only to California, New York and Illinois.

The Garden State is important because "it has a lot of delegates to both conventions. That's what really matters. We're in a delegate battle now," said political scientist Larry J. Sabato, a national politics expert at the University of Virginia. "It also matters because it is in the backyards of two candidates. Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton both have to do well there to not be embarrassed."

Adding to the excitement in New Jersey are recent polls showing that former New York Mayor Giuliani's substantial lead has melted away, leaving him in a statistical dead heat with Sen. John McCain.

A sign of McCain's optimism is his expected visit to the state on Feb. 4.

The Arizona senator's wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina drew New Jersey's Republican voters away from Giuliani. Now, all eyes are on tomorrow's primary in Florida, where Giuliani has staked his political fortunes on the theory that if he wins in the populous state, he will come into Feb. 5 swinging.

A loss in Florida, though, can doom him, and he has lagged behind in recent nonpartisan polls there.

New Jersey Republicans broke away from Giuliani earlier this month because they were losing confidence in his ability to win, said Patrick Murray, head of polling for Monmouth University, the first academic pollster to track the Giuliani-McCain shift in New Jersey in a poll released Jan. 15.

"What really drives Republicans more than Democrats is that they really do look at viability," he said. "If a candidate is coming in fourth, fifth or sixth place, even if he says say he's not competing as Giuliani has done, that gives the Republican voter cause for concern."

He pointed out that Republican voters aren't saying they dislike Giuliani, adding, "If he scores an incredible upset in Florida, we're going to see this pendulum swing back again."

Not so fast, says State Sen. Bill Baroni (R., Mercer), who is McCain's state chairman. He said the McCain camp had labored in the state, even through the summer, when their candidate looked finished. They've cultivated veterans and college students, two key constituencies they believe are now helping to boost McCain in the polls.

But Giuliani's chairman, George Gilmore, the Ocean County GOP chair, said his examination of the polls showed the ex-New York City mayor was fighting McCain among independent voters who have helped McCain in other states.

On the Democratic side, Clinton maintains her months-long lead over Obama. But that race, too, is tightening up.

Quinnipiac University's poll released last week had Clinton ahead of Obama, 49 percent to 32 percent. The spread has tightened since its last poll, in December, when Clinton was beating Obama 51 percent to 17 percent.

The same poll had McCain over Giuliani by 29 percent to 26 percent last week, a huge change from December, when Giuliani had 38 percent to McCain's 12 percent.

McCain and Giuliani are said to be in a statistical dead heat because pollsters say their numbers could be off by plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, the margin of error.

Peter Woolley, director of Farleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll, said Giuliani and Clinton benefited in early polls because of their broad name recognition among voters. The two New York candidates are watching their leads taper off, he said, because voters are learning more about the rest of the pack.

"All these guys who were unknown are better-known now. And, that's got to change the dynamic here because Giuliani simply won't be the default candidate for Republicans," he said. "The same for Clinton. Obama is catching fire. People are looking much more carefully than they did a month ago."

Typical of a voter with an evolving perspective is Eric Voglesong, a father of two young children and sales representative from Wenonah. He had an early interest in Republican Rep. Ron Paul but now says he's definitely voting for a Democrat. His main issue: survival of the middle class.

The Democratic candidates, he said, "have a little more of the middle class in mind." But he added that they "spend too freely."

Because New Jersey hasn't had an early primary, no one knows what voter turnout could be like. In 2004, when the primary was too late in the game to matter, turnout was 9 percent. Turnout was 17 percent in 2000, a year with a June primary.

Most of New Jersey's 4.8 million registered voters - 2.8 million - are unaffiliated, but they can vote in a party primary as long as they choose a party at the polls.

No matter when the primary has been, New Jersey has wielded its influence with its wallet, and the money is still a big attraction for candidates. The state usually ranks in the top 10 of the most generous states for presidential candidates in both parties. This cycle, New Jersey ranks sixth in the nation for giving to both parties, donating a combined $11.8 million so far, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The trick for Republicans and Democrats alike here on Feb. 5 will be to get enough votes to earn them delegates.

The Republican winner of the popular vote will get all 52 of the state's delegates to the GOP convention. Democrats award 127 delegates. All but 20 are awarded to candidates based on a candidate's share of the vote. The rest are free to vote how they please.

For the national nod, the Democratic nominee would need a majority of the 4,367 delegates, while the Republican would need a majority of 2,380 delegates.

Thomas Sellers, 84, of Camden, plans to vote Feb. 5 and has been reading about the candidates. He is especially interested in what they will do about the war, the economy and retirement funds - for his children. He's fine, living off a pension and Social Security.

"People listened to what happened in New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina," Sellers said. "Maybe others will listen to what happens in New Jersey."

The New Jersey Primary

When: Feb. 5, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

What's at stake: For Democrats, 127 delegates, 70 apportioned based on the popular vote. For Republicans, 52 delegates, winner take all.

Who can vote: Registered Republicans and Democrats can vote only in their party's primary. Independent voters can vote if they declare a party affiliation at the polls. Identification is required. The deadline to register for the primary was Jan. 15.

Absentee voting: You must apply by mail to your county clerk by Tuesday. You may apply in person to your county clerk up to 3 p.m. Feb. 4. Your county Board of Elections must receive your absentee ballot by 8 p.m. Feb. 5.

For more information: Visit www.nj.gov/oag/elections/electionshome.html.

Source: Associated Press

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Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.