Republican gubernatorial candidates Steve Lonegan and Christopher J. Christie are working crowds at diners, boardwalks, and churches this weekend, wrapping up a primary race that became livelier and closer than many observers expected.
It will end Tuesday, primary day, which will lead immediately into the general election. In November, the eyes of the nation's political class will turn to New Jersey as the GOP's new standard-bearer takes on Democratic Gov. Corzine, who has been ringing up low favorability ratings.
But first, Christie and Lonegan will fight for every vote.
While Christie is ahead in independent polls and has establishment party backing, Lonegan has fueled a grassroots operation.
To win, Lonegan needs to build on his core of rock-solid conservative Republicans with younger, less-traditional voters, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University poll.
"In the end, it's not all that likely, simply because the numbers aren't there. There aren't enough of that type of voter to really overcome the gap" with Christie, he said. But he said he believed that gap might have closed "a little bit."
Lonegan must be surgical in turning out voters, seeking only those who support him. A generalized operation that just pulled out Republicans would help Christie, Murray said.
Turnout in Republican gubernatorial primaries has been about 30 percent, with about 300,000 registered Republicans going to the polls.
Political scientist Ben Dworkin suggested turnout could be even lower because Christie's lead in polls might make his supporters complacent.
He added that the Christie campaign "can't go to sleep and wake up on Wednesday and hope everything comes out OK."
It isn't. Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien said that it was running television and radio ads throughout the state and that Christie was on a statewide bus tour to energize volunteers and voters.
No one can say for sure how many voters Lonegan, the 53-year-old former mayor of Bogota, a town of 8,000, will draw Tuesday.
To drum up excitement, he has fielded slates in Assembly and county races throughout the state. In Camden and Gloucester Counties, for example, Republican voters will choose between the party and Lonegan slates. He's running television ads, primarily in North Jersey.
The Lonegan on the trail in 2009 is more polished than he was in the 2005 gubernatorial primary, which he finished fourth in a field of seven. Christie, who couldn't get re-elected as a Morris County freeholder in the mid-1990s, has proved a durable candidate, taking shots from Lonegan and Democrats on the trail.
While Lonegan has attacked Christie for having vague plans to cut the state budget and taxes, Christie has criticized Lonegan for his flat-income-tax proposal, saying it would raise taxes for many residents.
Besides choosing a governor, voters will pick all 80 Assembly seats this year. Most of those seats are considered safe for incumbents in the primary. However, the Lonegan factor could prevail in some instances.
"It looks like our candidates are challenging every member of the [Republican] Assembly leadership," said Lonegan's strategist, Rick Shaftan.
Christie, 46, a former U.S. attorney, entered the race in January as the long-courted favorite. But before Christie could even announce his candidacy and hold a single fund-raiser, Lonegan had raised enough money to participate in the state's matching-funds program.
Lonegan lost that advantage early. The latest campaign-finance reports show Christie raised more than $2.2 million and received $3.1 million in state matching money. Lonegan raised $1.3 million and received $1.5 million in matching money. Christie maxed out on state funding, and Lonegan continued to receive matching money late last week.
On top of the candidates' campaigns, this race has attracted Democrats who want Lonegan to win so they can paint him as a fringe candidate in a general election and a conservative group, Freedom's Defense Fund, which prefers Lonegan.
Both are running ads attacking Christie, who as U.S. attorney gave a lucrative no-bid contract to a prosecutor who oversaw an investigation that included his brother. That investigation found no wrongdoing.
While U.S. attorney, Christie secured guilty pleas or convictions of 130 politicians.
More attacks are expected, if Christie wins the primary. The national Democratic Mid-Atlantic Leadership Fund said it would continue its attack ads against Christie through the summer. The Republican Governors Association has run ads attacking Corzine and promises more in the fall. Only one other state, Virginia, elects a governor this year.
In this final round of campaigning, Lonegan took an endorsement from well-known conservative Phyllis Schlafly, who praised his opposition to gay marriage. Christie has said he, too, opposes gay marriage.
For star power, Christie campaigned with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in North Jersey. He tapped Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, for an endorsement rally in Haddonfield.
Noting the national attention, Romney framed the battle between Corzine and the GOP nominee as one that pit conservative values against the backdrop of a decidedly Democratic state.
"If a state like New Jersey, which is known for the strength of the Democratic Party, elects a conservative - putting aside whether you're a Republican or a Democrat,"
he said, ". . . I think that sends a very strong message that the nation is still a center-right nation."
At a campaign stop Friday in Burlington City, Lonegan said: "This is a battleground state for the conservative Republican Party and the me-too Republican Party. The whole country's watching this race. This is what's going to determine what the Republican Party is going to be about for the next decade or more."
Both Lonegan and Christie are wrestling for conservative voters, the majority of those expected to vote Tuesday. The victor can expect Democrats to portray him as out of step with the state's Democratic majority.
For starters, Corzine won't let the Republican primary winner get all the attention Tuesday. He faces marginal opposition in the primary and is planning a flashy campaign-kickoff party featuring Vice President Biden in West Orange. Two days later, on Thursday, he'll host an acoustic performance by Jersey-born rocker Jon Bon Jovi in Newark.
The governor plans to use his personal fortune to pay for his campaign and reach the state's almost 2-1 majority of Democrats. And his supporters say President Obama is likely to campaign for him.
Also Tuesday, voters in some counties will decide freeholder primaries, while there are Democratic primaries for mayoralties in Camden and Atlantic City.