INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

TOMS RIVER, N.J. - In a roomful of Ocean County officeholders, Freeholder Jack Kelly yesterday declared himself the man to beat in the Republican primary for Congress in the district that runs through Ocean and Burlington Counties.

With his announcement, Kelly set off the first battle since 1984 between two of New Jersey's most stalwart Republican counties. Burlington County Republicans are backing Medford Mayor Chris Myers, a Lockheed Martin executive, in the primary.

In the skirmish 24 years ago, the Burlington County candidate, U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, survived the primary, and both county GOP organizations have endorsed him ever since. Now 64, Saxton is retiring for health reasons.

While the Republicans head to a primary, Democrats are lining up behind State Sen. John Adler, who lives in Cherry Hill, the only Camden County town in the district.

Kelly said this race wasn't a battle between the counties. Instead, he defined it as a race to find the better candidate - him.

"My base is stronger than my opponent's base simply because I have represented all of the towns in Ocean County that are in the Third Congressional District," he said. "My opponent has represented but one town and only for a very short time, so his challenge is greater than my challenge."

Tom Blakely, a spokesman for Myers, said the campaign was "about bringing real change. Chris Myers helped create thousands of high-paying jobs. He fights every day for a strong national defense and represents the best conservative values we need in Washington."

Both candidates have strong GOP machines behind them.

Burlington County Republicans turned back an aggressive Democratic challenge for legislative seats in its western towns in November. Kelly, who made his announcement from the law offices of Ocean County GOP chairman George Gilmore, has won six times countywide as a freeholder since 1992.

Echoing the sentiments of many in the seaside county, GOP Assemblyman James Holzapfel said, "Ocean County needs its own congressman."

Kelly said his campaign would focus on his record as a freeholder and as mayor of Eagleswood Township.

On the issues, he opposes abortion and supports the war in Iraq, he said.

Kelly said he would have voted for the war in Iraq given the information available at the time. For now, he agrees with the surge of troops, he said, and believes, in general, that "it's a good idea that we've taken the battle to the terrorists."

He also said he wanted to cut health-care costs with a combination of tort reform and incentives to employers to provide insurance.

He plans to spend about $600,000 on the June 3 primary, but said that could change as the campaign progressed. His finance chairman is national Republican fund-raiser Larry Bathgate.

John Kelly

Task:

Kelly, 56, is a candidate in the Third Congressional District's Republican primary.

Experience:

He has been an Ocean County freeholder since 1993. Formerly, Kelly served 17 years on the Eagleswood Township Committee, including 11 as mayor. He has been a member of the Eagleswood Volunteer Fire Company and a Cub Scout leader.

Occupation:

Kelly was manager of Atlantic City International Airport until retiring three years ago.

Family:

Wife Evelyn and five children ages 17 to 26.

Education:

He is a graduate of Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J.