Peter DeStefano says he's just an "average Joe," working voters at Wawas, diners, and beaches to get elected to the House.

But to Republican nominee Jon Runyan, the former Eagles tackle in a tough race to unseat Democratic Rep. John Adler, DeStefano is an irritant who could prove toxic.

The little-known DeStefano, a picture framer from Mount Laurel, is running as an independent candidate under the NJ Tea Party moniker in the Third Congressional District, which runs through Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County. The tag alone could draw votes away from Runyan.

After reviewing the 200-plus signatures on DeStefano's nominating petitions and finding he had more than enough, Runyan's campaign has continued to dig, looking for something to knock DeStefano off the ballot.

The campaign is considering a lawsuit alleging that those who signed may not have known that DeStefano was unaffiliated with a formal tea-party group, according to Runyan's campaign consultant, Chris Russell.

The research did unearth one nugget. Marshall Spevak of Cherry Hill signed one of DeStefano's petitions. Spevak lives just doors from Adler, and was active in Adler's freshman House campaign in 2008. His father, Eric, has contributed to Adler campaigns and is an administrative law judge for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Neither returned calls for comment.

According to Runyan's forces, Spevak's signature is evidence that Adler is behind the DeStefano candidacy. It's a cynical, underhanded move intended to scuttle Runyan, they say.

Adler's forces deny that they propped up DeStefano, who - like Runyan - is a first-time candidate.

DeStefano "is a fraudulent Trojan horse candidate who ended up on the ballot with significant help from Democrat operatives close to Congressman John Adler," Runyan's campaign contended in a statement.

Without proof that Adler and DeStefano are in cahoots, the campaign has used the court of public opinion to attack DeStefano.

"What I don't get about this is, who cares?" DeStefano said last week. "I have every right, as an American citizen, to run for any office I want."

He said an acquaintance of one of his son's friends had circulated the petition that Spevak signed. He was unable to produce the acquaintance for an interview with The Inquirer.

In a tight race, a third-party candidate can suck just enough votes from a major-party contender to tip the result.

Last year, Chris Daggett was such a threat to Christopher J. Christie's gubernatorial candidacy that the Republican Governors Association spent thousands of dollars on television advertising to attack Daggett.

Unlike DeStefano, however, Daggett did not suffer allegations that his candidacy was a fraud.

DeStefano said Runyan's barbs contradicted the Republican's assertion that he understands the plight of "regular people."

The 52-year-old native of Southwest Philadelphia moved to Gibbsboro with his family when he was in junior high.

His parents had been Democrats when they lived in the city. When they moved, DeStefano said, a former Gibbsboro tax assessor told them that they had to reregister as Democrats if they wanted to get along in their new town. The couple were so angered that they helped found a local Republican committee.

DeStefano's interest in politics was heightened after he lost his Lumberton home to foreclosure in 2007. At the time, he said, he had been unable to keep up with his adjustable-rate mortgage and ever-climbing heating-oil bills.

He now rents a Mount Laurel apartment with his son. Despite his troubles, he has held on to his framing business, formerly in his home. He moved the shop, High Art Gallery, to High Street in Mount Holly with the help an Urban Enterprise Zone grant.

"I got very bitter at that time with the Republicans. They weren't doing anything," he said. His ire was mostly directed at Washington.

In addition to his unhappiness with rising fuel prices and a barely regulated mortgage market, DeStefano said, he opposed the war in Iraq, which he believes was "started on a rumor." He also is against the war in Afghanistan, which he said was helping a corrupt regime. He supports the military, he said, but believes the United States should be taking care of domestic problems.

After the 2008 general election, DeStefano switched to the Democratic Party. But "it didn't take me much longer to find out it was worse," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, they are both full of crap," he said.

He doesn't have kind words for local tea-party organizations, who have made it clear from the start that they did not sponsor his candidacy.

The groups endorsed Justin Murphy over Runyan in the Republican primary. But last week, the West Jersey Tea Party, which has members in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, endorsed the former Eagle.

They're "shills" for the Republicans, DeStefano said.

In addition to running for the House on a shoestring budget, DeStefano said, he has incorporated as NJ Tea Party Inc. and plans to start a political party based on reduced government spending and strict adherence to the Constitution.

According to a Rutgers University poll released last week, DeStefano is a marginal figure in the race so far. He polled at 4 percent, and - possibly because the poll did not identify him as a tea-party candidate - he took more votes from Adler than from Runyan.

In an interview, pollster David Redlawsk said DeStefano probably would attract more support if voters associated him with the tea party. It is not a recognized party in New Jersey, so candidates, affiliated with a tea-party group or not, are free to claim the name.

Analysts say the proof that DeStefano is a factor in the race can be found in the Runyan campaign's attacks since mid-July.

"This race is so competitive that even a marginal candidate can make the difference between winning and losing," Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said.

Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray said Runyan probably would succeed in "stamping out the DeStefano campaign.

"There's so much talk right now about DeStefano being a stealth candidate," Murray said, that "the word will get out that he's not to be seen as a tea-party candidate."

But DeStefano may tap into an underlying frustration among voters, Dworkin added.

"Whether or not DeStefano is able to lay claim to a tea-party label does not mean he won't still have an audience [among] people who are frustrated with both parties," he said.

Other Republicans around the country have accused tea-party candidates of being plants or spoilers.

Republican House candidate Patrick Meehan, a former U.S. attorney running in Delaware County, has said Democrats have helped tea-party candidate Jim Schneller. Two groups, including one with ties to Democrats, are fighting over control of the tea-party name in Florida. And in Michigan, an aide to the Oakland County Democratic chairman was found to have notarized tea-party candidate affidavits.

DeStefano launched a campaign website last week and said he would announce a big endorsement soon.

"I've got a chance to win this thing," he said. "I'm in this thing to win."