Under a light snowfall, Democratic congressional candidate John Adler was ringing doorbells this week in a Pemberton apartment complex, talking to its mostly military residents about the economy, the Iraq war and health care.
"The fact that I'm working this hard in February should tell you about the kind of person I am," he said to Altagracia Ortega-Dominguez. The former Peace Corps volunteer and teacher said it told her enough.
"Going door-to-door, speaking to people is one of the things all these candidates should do the most," she said, without indicating whether she wanted a Democrat or a Republican to win the seat that is opening with the retirement of U.S. Rep. James Saxton (R., N.J.).
Adler, the presumptive Democratic candidate, is running against the odds in this Republican-leaning congressional district, which spans Burlington and Ocean Counties. So he is taking his advantage as the lone Democrat as far as it will get him.
The state senator from Cherry Hill hopes to make inroads while a primary battle pits the region's two most powerful Republican county organizations against each other.
Adler's recent walk through the Pemberton apartment complex was a small piece of a long day. He spent most of the daylight hours making political and fund-raising calls. At twilight, he rang doorbells, talking to potential voters. In the early evening, he went to the Voorhees Islamic Center as Catholics and Muslims penned an agreement pledging mutual respect. After that, it was off to a fund-raiser.
He has gotten his law partners at Earp Cohn, in Cherry Hill, to tackle the bulk of his client load while he devotes most of his time to the congressional race and the rest to his Statehouse duties.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee signed up Adler last year, giving him fund-raising and political help. The DCCC has put Adler and central Jersey congressional candidate Linda Stender on a list of 10 candidates running in Republican-held areas where it thinks a Democrat can win.
In the money sweepstakes, Adler reported having $590,000 in cash on hand by Dec. 31, the end of the most recent reporting period.
Republicans Jack Kelly, an Ocean County freeholder, and Chris Myers, a Lockheed Martin executive, have opened campaign committees as well, but their tallies will not be available until mid-April. Both campaigns say they have been raising money and will be competitive.
They will, though, be spending a lot of that money on the June 3 primary against each other, while all of Adler's efforts are directed to the November election.
"Anyone in either party would prefer not to have a primary to go through and spend resources," said Chris Russell, who is Myers' campaign manager. "By the same token, it's also going to give our campaign a chance to get itself seasoned and ready for the fall."
That's when the GOP will hit Adler with being a Trenton Democrat.
"He's a creature of Trenton in a time when Trenton is wildly unpopular and for good reason," Russell said. "He's going to have to answer in the fall to voters."
And most of those voters pick Republicans over Democrats when given the choice. Since 2000, the only Democrat to win across the district was U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg in 2002. President Bush won there twice and Democratic Gov. Corzine lost twice, first as a U.S. Senate candidate and then in the 2005 gubernatorial vote. Saxton consistently rang up huge margins against Democrats.
Democrats see hope in the changing demographics of the district, especially in Burlington County, where races between Democrats and Republicans have become more competitive in recent years. They believe Adler can ride the wave of a high-turnout presidential election in a deep-blue state.
He won his state Senate seat from an entrenched Republican in 1991, a feat that Democrats are betting he can repeat in this race. He also ran against Saxton in 1990 and lost, 58 percent to 39 percent.
Adler is not well-known outside Camden County, where he has served as a state senator since 1992 and on the Cherry Hill council in the late 1980s. Cherry Hill is the only town from Camden County in the district.
Kelly has won countywide elections in Ocean County six times for freeholder. Myers is not well-known outside his hometown.
The mayor of Medford, Myers has the backing of the Burlington County machine, which pulled off wins in legislative races last year.
As the snow fell late Wednesday in Pemberton, Sean McClenden, who has been in the Air Force for 15 years, struck one of the dominant issues of the campaign.
"We have an upper class and a lower class, but the middle class is getting condensed down," he said.
Adler said he'd do what he could.