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Hats disappearing from Third District ring

But jockeying to replace retiring U.S. Rep. James Saxton continues in Burlington and Ocean County GOP circles.

The field is narrowing in the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. James Saxton (R., N.J.), but it still looks as if each of the two powerhouse counties in the district could have its own candidate in the Republican primary in June.

Three candidates dropped out of the race yesterday, joining a handful of others who quit within the last two weeks.

One of the surviving candidates is Chris Myers, the deputy mayor of Medford and a Lockheed Martin Corp. executive. He has formed an exploratory committee and appears to have the inside track for the Burlington County GOP endorsement for the Third District seat.

"Our candidate is looking more and more like Chris Myers," Bill Layton, the county GOP chairman, said yesterday.

In Ocean County, which makes up roughly half the district, two Republican freeholders have emerged as front-runners for the endorsement of party leaders. That race is likely to end Monday night, when the county GOP is set to endorse a candidate.

Burlington County's Republican field lost a major player a week ago when State Sen. Diane Allen dropped out of the race. Yesterday, Freeholder Aubrey Fenton also dropped out, as did David Norcross, a national Republican committeeman who hails from the county but spends much of his time in Washington.

The district, which runs from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean, has been represented in Congress by a Burlington County Republican for decades. Saxton's retirement announcement on Nov. 9 stirred up a desire in Ocean County to send a resident to Washington.

"In my humble opinion, when push comes to shove, it's an Ocean County seat," said State Sen. Leonard Connors (R., Ocean). "One thing we are very capable of in Ocean County is getting our voters out, and that is going to be very important."

The Ocean County field shrunk this week when Virginia Haines, a former state lottery director from Toms River, and Assemblyman Brian Rumpf pulled out. The loss of those two potentially strong candidates left the field to Freeholders Jack Kelly and Joe Vicari and a handful of others focusing on impressing the county GOP's screening committee, which plans to meet today.

Myers said he also would attend the meeting.

Layton said the Burlington County screening committee would meet in early January and endorse a candidate by the end of that month.

Democrats appear settled on backing State Sen. John Adler (D., Camden), who has gotten support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.