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Running like she's 14 points behind

Team Obama's N.J. director is working to unite a party that backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the February primary.

Tricia Mueller didn't grow up with typical hobbies.

On weekends she studied electoral maps. The daughter of a mayor and Camden County surrogate, she helped Democrats stuff campaign mailers and rode in the back of station wagons to deliver flyers.

Now 34 and quick to smile as she reminisces, Mueller works at the highest level of politics, leading the effort to deliver 15 electoral votes to Barack Obama as she heads his campaign in New Jersey.

The state has backed the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1988, and in recent polls Obama has led Republican John McCain by double digits.

But Mueller must bring together Democrats in a state that went overwhelmingly for Hillary Rodham Clinton in February's primary. And Republicans here argue that McCain can win New Jersey's blue-collar swing voters.

Mueller, who grew up in Oaklyn and lives in Merchantville, said Democrats have key advantages: motivation and enthusiasm.

"John McCain has supporters, but Barack Obama has believers, and I think that makes a difference," Mueller said.

In an interview at Democratic State Committee headquarters in Trenton, she pointed to grassroots enthusiasm for Obama and Democrats' burning desire to win the White House after close calls in 2000 and 2004.

Mueller, a leader in the carpenters union and granddaughter of a Philadelphia sheet-metal worker, said she must harness that energy and reach the same blue-collar voters targeted by McCain. They trend Democratic, but she said they were not afraid to switch sides.

"I wouldn't necessarily call [New Jersey] in play, but at the same time, we're not going to take any votes for granted," Mueller said.

From her days helping out her father, Bart - a onetime mayor of Oaklyn, a former county surrogate, and current head of the South Jersey Transportation Authority - Mueller has risen through the Democratic ranks.

She worked on the campaigns of former Gov. Jim McGreevey and Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez.

She also ran the Democrats' coordinated campaign in 2005, helping Gov. Corzine win his first term.

Mueller graduated from Paul VI High School in Haddon Township and Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey.

While in college, she spent six months in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, where the poverty, human-rights abuses and scarcity of medicine, which she attributed largely to globalization, pushed her toward the labor movement back home, she said.

After working for a time for the AFL-CIO and Camden County lawmakers, she joined the New Jersey Regional Council of Carpenters in 2000.

Mueller spent a brief stint heading the union's national political operation before returning to New Jersey, in part to try to balance work and her personal life, she said.

But that was before the Obama campaign tapped her last month.

Asked what she did outside of politics now, Mueller responded dryly, "That's a really good question," before adding that she was an avid reader.

Members of both parties describe her as a top political operative.

"She's been in political campaigns on every single level. She's been on the national scene with the carpenters, so it's not foreign to her what she has to do here," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), an official of the ironworkers union.

The head of the McCain campaign in New Jersey, State Sen. Bill Baroni (R., Mercer), said Mueller's selection showed that Democrats were worried.

"If they truly believe that New Jersey was not in play, if they truly believe that this was a gimme, they would not have put Tricia Mueller in charge," Baroni said. "She is one of the best in the country."

Baroni has set a goal of drawing middle-class voters to McCain to help pull an upset in a heavily Democratic state. Clinton supporters, with their blue-collar bent, also could turn out for the Republican nominee, he said.

He pointed to McCain's five visits to New Jersey since February, including one Tuesday. Obama has not been here since the day before the Feb. 5 primary.

"I think New Jersey voters expect candidates to come ask for their votes," Baroni said.

Mueller conceded that Obama likely wouldn't visit New Jersey much as he concentrated on battleground states. Instead the campaign will depend on the state's top Democrats, most of whom backed Clinton, to rally behind Obama.

"Democrats at the end of the day will all be there," Mueller said. "They might not be rushing toward the finish line, but they'll be there."

Mueller agreed that blue-collar workers would make the difference in the election, but expects the sputtering economy to push them away from another Republican administration.

"On issues that matter to working-class folks," she said, McCain "hasn't been there. . . . This voting bloc just needs to be educated."

The McCain camp has a head start.

Its New Jersey operation has been running since early summer, while Mueller just last week got the keys to open an Obama office in Princeton.

But the quick start doesn't appear to have turned the tables.

Democrats began with a 650,000-person edge in voter registration, and in a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, Obama had a 10 percentage-point lead over McCain in New Jersey.

The Democrat's lead was 14 points in a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll released July 22.

"It will be the philosophy of our team here in New Jersey to run like we're 14 points behind," Mueller said. "I think that's the way you need to approach any campaign."