Two of the state's most stalwart Republican counties are set to run congressional candidates against each other in a primary for the first time in more than two decades.

Ocean County's Republican organization has endorsed Freeholder Director Jack Kelly in the Third District, while Burlington County's GOP leaders are headed toward choosing Chris Myers, a Lockheed Martin vice president and former Navy lieutenant.

Still, party leaders are hoping to avoid a primary fight in the campaign to replace retiring U.S. Rep. James Saxton (R., N.J.), given the Republican Party's fund-raising disadvantage in New Jersey.

State committee chairman Tom Wilson said that with both county machines sponsoring candidates, "there's really not much you can do at this point."

Wilson said he would give both candidates until late February or March to "see if one candidate seems to be distinguishing himself in a way that serves our larger purpose." Then, he'll help clear the field, if possible.

Both candidates are working on fund-raising. Kelly said he met yesterday with consultants to set up his fund-raising committee, while Myers said he was working with his exploratory committee.

The Republican candidate, when one emerges, likely would face State Sen. John Adler (D., Camden), who has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The National Republican Congressional Committee's spokesman, Ken Spain, said the committee would stay out of any primary.

Although this primary occurs in a presidential year, the New Jersey presidential primary is set for Feb. 5, while the congressional primary will be held as usual in June. That means congressional candidates won't get a lift from turnout driven by a presidential primary.

The district runs from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean through Burlington and Ocean Counties. Cherry Hill is the lone town in Camden County in the congressional district.

Rick DeMichele, the Camden County Republican chairman, said he may or may not have a candidate in the race. Either way, he expects to be a player.

"It's no secret that if they [Burlington and Ocean County Republican parties] each put up their own person and are equally split among the primary voters, Cherry Hill becomes overwhelmingly important," DeMichele said.

While partisans argue that primaries sap precious resources, political scientist Joseph Marbach, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Seton Hall University, sees a bright side for two candidates who are not well-known throughout the sprawling district.

"In a sense, going into a primary allows the candidates to gain some name recognition in the district," he said. The candidates "will get a lot of relatively free publicity in a primary. There aren't a lot of races in the state, so that will be the hottest race."

Kelly, 56, of Eagleswood Township, has been in public office for 28 years, first on his township committee and, starting in 1992, on the freeholder board.

"I am running as if I'm unopposed," Kelly said of his primary strategy. He will cast himself as the best candidate to beat the Democrat without reference to Myers.

Myers, 42, less talkative, said he was spending December talking to people and leaders in the district. He is a deputy mayor in Medford.

The GOP hasn't had political machines going up against each other in the Third District since 1984, when Saxton defeated Dean Haines and John Rocco.

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