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N.J.'s Democrats and GOP gearing up for '09 race

While the governor's race is the main attraction of New Jersey's 2009 political season, each of the 80 seats in the state Assembly is up for grabs, with some of the most contentious battles expected in South Jersey.

While the governor's race is the main attraction of New Jersey's 2009 political season, each of the 80 seats in the state Assembly is up for grabs, with some of the most contentious battles expected in South Jersey.

Most of the Assembly seats are safe for incumbents or dominant parties, but in Cape May and Atlantic Counties - as well as a few spots elsewhere - there could be some heated races.

So far, only one significant primary is shaping up, in Morris County, where the son of a state senator is running against his brother-in-law. Analysts also have their eyes trained on potential general election battlegrounds in Bergen, Monmouth and Union Counties.

"We see opportunity all around the state, particularly in the south and moving up," said Mark Duffy, who is heading the GOP's Assembly election operation. He said 2009 "is a year we anticipate to be completely on the offense."

Outlining the Republican argument to voters, Duffy said that Democrats have dominated the state government for almost eight years and New Jersey still has budget and tax problems.

Democrats control the Assembly by a 48-32 margin. They also control the Senate and governor's office.

Duffy said voters enamored with the change theme in the presidential race were still hungry for it.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, of Camden County, said that, overall, "next year is going to be a referendum, more than anything else, on Gov. Corzine's years and the success he's had in steering the state through tough waters."

Roberts said when Republicans blame Democrats for the frail economy, voters will judge Democrats on their response to it, which includes nearly 40 bills providing help for families on the edge with heating oil, food and jobs.

The strained economy "is not a problem that started in New Jersey and won't be fixed here," he said. "We have to make sure New Jerseyans get through this with the least amount of pain and anxiety."

Both parties are still fielding candidates in areas where they don't have incumbents seeking reelection and are paying special attention to the hot spots.

Democrats think they have a chance against Assemblymen John Amodeo and Vincent Polistina, the two freshmen Republicans in Atlantic County. The district has been voting for Democrats recently. In 2007, voters elected a Democrat to the state senate seat for the first time in 25 years.

"They [Amodeo and Polistina] won by a couple thousand votes but the district continues to change significantly and particularly after the Feb. 5 [presidential] primary where there was an increase in the number of Democratic voters in the district," said political scientist Brigid Harrison from Montclair State University.

Pat D'Arcy, Atlantic County Democratic chairman, said based on his party's 10,000 voter edge over the Republicans, who have 42,000 registered voters, "I think we're poised to take those two seats and the governor's race as well."

But Republicans say they're ready for the Democratic assault.

GOP Chairman Keith Davis said Amodeo and Polistina have been making all the right moves, working the district with strong constituent services, frequent town hall meetings and appearances on local talk radio.

"They're really out there in the community doing their jobs," said Davis.

And, this time, the Democrats won't have the popular state Sen. James Whelan on the ballot, say Republicans. However, D'Arcy said Whelan will campaign for the Assembly ticket.

Republicans around the state say the Assembly-only race is an advantage in some of the hot spots.

In Gloucester County, neither Democratic state Sens. Stephen Sweeney nor Fred Madden is on the ballot, giving Republicans hope for picking off Assembly members, said Steve Kush, the Gloucester County political director.

"There's nothing that is not challenged anymore," he said.

In Cape May County, Democratic assemblymen Nelson Albano and freshman Matthew Milan can expect Republicans to try to take those seats; without the widely known state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a tireless campaigner, on the ticket, the GOP thinks it has a better shot.

The emerging primary in the north pits Republicans Anthony Bucco Jr., son of state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R., Morris), against his brother-in-law, Morris County Freeholder Doug Cabana; Cabana's wife, Amy, is Bucco's sister.

Bucco has not held elected office before, but touts his experience as a fireman and his charitable work, which included asking attendees at his kickoff ceremony last week to bring food for the local food banks.

Cabana has served as the mayor of Boonton and been a freeholder since 1997. Years before it was the rage, Cabana said, he's helped towns share costs, including shared housing coordinators, street sweepers and stump grinders.

The likelihood of seats flipping from one party to the other ultimately "depends on the attention that is paid and also top of ticket is going to drive a lot of it," said Seton Hall University political scientist Joseph Marbach.

At the top of the ticket, Gov. Corzine is expected to run for reelection against a Republican to be named later. The GOP primary field could include former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, former Bogata Mayor Steve Lonegan and Assemblyman Rick Merkt (R., Morris).