On a recent afternoon, congressional candidate Jack Kelly crashed an opponent's news conference in front of the Ocean County building where Kelly works as a freeholder.

The opponent, Chris Myers, of Burlington County, charged that Kelly was a patronage hack, taking a job at Atlantic City's airport to pad his pension and profit from taking waive-out fees for not using the airport's health insurance plan.

Kelly played the class card, questioning how it could be immoral for an employee to take an earned benefit.

As the confrontation unfolded, Kelly's campaign staff was running a video camera and is now running edited snippets in an attack ad on Myers.

Kelly is a seasoned politician, who doesn't run from a fight. But he's also a family man, and the kind of guy who finishes his lunch at the Lobster Shanty in Toms River and stacks the dishes so the waitress can more easily take them away.

"Jack is not afraid to speak his mind," says longtime friend Tom Gormley. "He's going to tell you how he feels whether he hurts your feelings or not."

But, Gormley said, after the blunt talk, Kelly makes up.

"He's going to come over and talk to you," said Gormley. "You know he's not going to hate you because you have a different opinion."

Kelly finds himself in a bitter Republican primary race with Myers, the mayor of Medford, to take a shot at the congressional seat held by U.S. Rep. James Saxton, 65, who announced in November he would retire for health reasons. The Third District runs through Burlington and Ocean Counties and covers Cherry Hill in Camden County. It has been represented by Saxton for 24 years.

Kelly understands Saxton's longevity in office. He has been in government almost three decades, taking his first elected office as township committeeman in Eagleswood in 1979, where he served for 17 years - 11 as mayor - before being elected freeholder in 1992.

Now, at age 56, Kelly - the son of a Philadelphia cop and a father of five - wants to go to Washington.

"This is the greatest nation in the history of the world and I would like to be there," he said, explaining his desire to go to Congress. "There are two directions the country can go right now. It can go to the left or to the right, and I believe we've gone too much to the left."

He comes to this moment in his life after years of hard work. He was a bathroom cleaner, caddy, mail carrier, campground security guard and waiter. Kelly never became the college graduate, the lawyer or corporate executive so common in modern politics.

Instead, he worked at the local hardware store in rural West Creek from his junior year in high school until he was 31. He launched his political career from the counter of Tip's Hardware, under the tutelage of its late owner, Freeholder Stanley "Tip" Seaman. Most of the town hung out there and talked baseball - Kelly was a power hitter on the store's softball team.

After winning a seat on the Eagleswood Township Council, Kelly worked himself into Ocean County's vaunted Republican machine, volunteering on campaigns and eventually running them as the county committee's executive director. In 1992, he was the machine candidate for freeholder and won.

These days, he parks his red Mustang with a black ragtop in his freeholder spot at the Ocean County office building in Toms River. A little self-conscious about the flashy toy, he says the car was a gift to his wife, Evelyn, but she prefers their minivan. So, the baby boomer politician is stuck driving one of his generation's most beloved cars.

Kelly was born at Temple University Hospital and the family lived in West Oak Lane until Kelly's father, William, had a heart attack. When Kelly was 2, the family moved to the Jersey Shore, where he grew up fishing, hunting and clamming. The Kellys maintained their Philadelphia ties by reading the Bulletin until it folded in 1982, and Kelly considers himself a Philadelphia sports fan, suffering through Phillies' and Eagles' seasons with the city of his birth.

At the same time he was building a political career, he was working 16 hours a day, sleeping six or fewer hours a night.

A year out of high school, he bought a gas station across the street from the hardware store, where he continued to work in between shifts at his gas station.

"I did that until the whole world ran out of gas" in the 1970s, he said. While the business failure hurt him, it didn't ruin him.

Kelly continued to work at the hardware store and hold part-time jobs while he and his wife raised their five children.

In 1983, he started working full time for the Ocean County government, moving from the parks department to security to the clerk's office. He retired from his post as a confidential aide to the county clerk in 1992 after he was elected freeholder. He worked at the Atlantic City airport until retiring three years ago.

He attributes his work ethic to his father, who was a park ranger at Bass River State Forest. He had a stroke in 1959, leaving his left side paralyzed.

"He taught himself how to drag the left side of his body with the right side of his body and he went back to work. He maintained his position as a forest ranger until 1966, when he died," said Kelly. "The lesson you learn from that is simple: In life, nothing is free. You earn whatever you get."

Kelly has had his own health issues. Last July, after a cancer diagnosis, he had his prostate removed. A few years earlier, his blood pressure was out of control, so he went on the treadmill and a diet, losing 80 pounds. He says he's gotten a clean bill of health, easy enough to see from energy on the campaign trail.

When he speaks to home-turf Republicans, as he did on a recent evening, Kelly sticks to the script, gliding back and forth in front of the Waretown Republican Club. He hammers Myers, and launches into the "I have a career of public service I am proud of" speech.

On cue, Kelly's friend and fellow Freeholder Gerry Little walks into the meeting of about 100 Republicans and pitches for Kelly, ending with this:

"Jack has been a leader in Ocean County," he says and, glancing at Kelly, adds: "I assume you talked about our tax rate and the fact that we controlled our tax rate, and that's what you're going to do in Washington."

Kelly shoots back: "That's what I'm going to do in Washington, and I'm Jack Kelly and I approve that message."

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