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With early primary, N.J. seems lost in pack

It's one of 22 states set for Feb. 5. This election shows little advantage in the change from June.

TRENTON - When New Jersey moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5, it had visions of candidates shaking hands, kissing babies, and stumping hard for votes as they do in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But the Garden State instead finds itself among 22 states holding Feb. 5 presidential primaries, and polls show two candidates from neighboring New York - Republican Rudy Giuliani and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton - with leads so huge that New Jersey's race might already be over.

"So far, the goal [of moving up the primary date] does not seem to be met," said Ingrid Reed of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Rather than trailing the pack with its June primary, New Jersey now risks getting lost in a primary scramble.

"Once again, New Jersey voters will be left behind the door as America chooses its next president," said Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R., Morris). "It's sad to see such a good idea botched this badly, but, hey, it's New Jersey."

But Democrats who control state government and moved New Jersey's primary from June to February are confident it was the correct step. Democratic Gov. Corzine signed the change into law in April, a day before he endorsed Clinton.

Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton said the governor's aim was to make New Jersey a prime-time player in presidential politics.

"The impact of this move can only be measured over time," Stainton said. "But it is already clear that issues of concern to state residents - expanding access to health care, protecting the environment, improving education, and ending the war in Iraq - have taken a front-seat role as these campaigns evolve."

Candidates haven't flocked repeatedly to New Jersey, but they have visited, and Senate President Richard J. Codey, a leading backer of an early primary, said that never would have happened otherwise.

"New Jersey is in a funny kind of position, because everybody assumes it's a lock for Hillary because she's next door and for Giuliani because he's next door," said Codey (D., Essex). "Yet despite that, the other candidates have come in. It was the right thing to do."

For at least 60 years, New Jersey had held its presidential primary on the first Tuesday in June, months after most other states had voted and major party candidates typically had been decided.

But while voters never got to see candidates campaigning, candidates collected money from New Jerseyans. In 2004, presidential candidates raised $15.5 million from New Jersey, the eighth-highest total in the nation, prompting Codey to declare candidates saw New Jersey simply as "an ATM machine."

So New Jersey moved its presidential primary from June to the last Tuesday in February.

But when other states began moving their presidential primaries to early February in what Codey described as "leapfrog presidential politics," the state moved it to the first Tuesday in February. It left the primary election for all other offices in June.

Though Michigan has scheduled a Jan. 15 primary and Florida has set its for Jan. 29, the national parties wanted all states except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to wait until Feb. 5 and after to hold primaries, and 22 states chose the earliest possible date.

Pennsylvania's primary is set for April 22.

Though candidates haven't visited New Jersey frequently, they're still raising money in it.

New Jersey ranks as the sixth most-generous state for the presidential candidates, having given a total of $11.8 million, behind California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

"The candidates have fund-raised, but they have not campaigned here, I think because they think Rudy and Hillary have it sown up," Reed said.

Tom Wilson, the New Jersey Republican Party chairman, said New Jersey might have done better to move its presidential primary to Feb. 12, for instance, when it would be competing only with Maryland and Virginia.

"It hasn't made a stitch of difference yet," Wilson said of the new date. "In fact, you might argue that the second move to Feb. 5 actually made us less relevant. If it turns out that on Feb. 5 we don't have anybody with a clear and definitive victory, the next handful of states are going to be potentially more important. We could have been a big prize."

Larry J. Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said it's possible both parties will still have tight contests going into Feb. 5, giving the larger states more say than usual.

"There's a small chance that one party will still be fighting it out in early June, when New Jersey's primary used to be held, but the chances are much greater that New Jersey will have a role more benefiting its sizable population because of its move to Feb. 5," he said.

Codey said he hoped this year's presidential primary scramble will lead to regional primaries in future presidential elections to try to stop states from competing among themselves for attention, as happened this year.

"I think what we're doing is forcing the national parties to come up with a regional system, I hope, for next time," Codey said.