Start with a colorful cast of characters and a modest goal. Then add provincialism and decades of haggling.

Now throw in a compromise idea that still leaves some bristling. Finally, mix in fear of a media backlash.

And there you have the story of New Jersey's futile quest for a state song. (And maybe the story of New Jersey, period.)

Senate President Richard J. Codey has been in the Legislature since 1974 and has hammered out deals on $30 billion budgets, school funding, and property taxes. But he doubts he'll ever see the day when lawmakers can agree on a state song.

"I'll probably leave the Legislature first," Codey (D., Essex) said.

New Jersey remains the only state without an official anthem, despite producing musical luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Wyclef Jean.

The issue was back in the spotlight early this month when a Senate committee discussed a plan to name four official songs: a state anthem, a state pop song, a state children's song, and a state ballad.

Of course, there was no vote by the State Government Committee.

"You wouldn't believe how controversial this topic is," said the chairman, Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union).

It seems every corner of the state has a little-known but passionate songwriter claiming to have penned the tune that should go into the record books, creating a regional tug-of-war among lawmakers who each want their constituent honored.

Also, several lawmakers said they were wary of the heat they would take for voting on such an issue during an economic crisis.

Pennsylvanians should know the difficulty of picking an official song. Until 1990 it was the only other state without one. Keystone lawmakers also pushed entries from their districts, bogging the debate in politics. Some suggested creating a state album.

When Gov. Robert P. Casey signed the bill making "Pennsylvania" the state song, advocates of other tunes promised to fight for a repeal.

New Jersey's thicket has persisted since at least 1939, when an official song was picked in a contest but never endorsed by the Legislature.

The state reviewed other possibilities in 1959, "but found none of sufficient merit," according to New Jersey's legislative manual, which devotes an entire page to the song history. The Assembly tried to make Springsteen's "Born to Run" the anthem in 1980, but the Senate didn't go along.

In 1996, the state arts council reviewed 215 entries and chose three finalists. But each represented a different area of the state, and lawmakers from each region wanted their local entry honored. A deal was never worked out.

The sponsor of the latest plan, Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Atlantic), came to the issue the way many lawmakers have: A constituent was sure he had the ditty the entire state needed to hear. Eager to help, Van Drew proposed naming "New Jersey, U.S.A.," a country recording by Millville resident Nelson Trout.

Van Drew's plan joins the three 1996 finalists and Trout's song in one bill that would honor all four.

"The more we got involved in it, we realized that you know what? We should try to bring folks together on this," Van Drew said.

Good luck.

"If we are to summon the courage to pick a state song, let's pick a state song," said Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Essex), who derided the idea of splitting the honor four ways. "It really is kind of silly."

The compromise also leaves out the dean of would-be Jersey songsters, Joseph Mascari, who goes by the name Red Mascara.

Mascari, 86, has been lobbying lawmakers for 49 years to adopt his tune "I'm From New Jersey." He wanders the Statehouse during nearly every legislative session passing out chewy fruit candies, and wears a James Bond-style watch that hooks up to a tiny set of speakers and plays 27 versions of his tune.

A bill to honor his song has passed the Assembly six times and the Senate three times, and made it to the governor's desk in 1972.

Mascari argues that his track is the best because it's "adaptable": One can easily replace "New Jersey" in the lyric with any two- or three-syllable town that wants to use it.

He was offered a part of Van Drew's compromise, but wanted to stand apart.

"I want to have a song that I can go to bed with and say that everyone knows," Mascari said.

He strongly defended his claim to having the best song at a hearing on the compromise. The issue is equally emotional for the other writers.

Trout said he felt betrayed by Mascara's testimony. He called him a "one-man sabotaging wrecking crew."

For Trout, who recorded his song at a Cherry Hill studio, "New Jersey, U.S.A." is a chance for a lasting honor.

"It will be a nice legacy to pass down to my town, my county, my state and my family," he said.

He is happy to share the glory, and has become friends with some of the other writers. If New Jersey becomes the last state to name an official song, Trout envisions an Oval Office ceremony with President Obama to mark the occasion.

Trout, who estimated that he has composed more than 300 songs, said he had spent two months writing and rewriting "New Jersey, U.S.A."

"It's only a two-minute song, but I knew it had to be perfect and no words could be wasted," he said.

Many other states have honored multiple tunes. Among them: New Hampshire, with 10; Tennessee, with five; and Wisconsin, which has a state song, ballad and waltz.

While New Jersey faces much more pressing concerns, Van Drew said, "music is part of our lives" and is enjoyed even in hard times.

Added Trout, "The state could use some good news, and it's not going to cost anyone a red nickel."

Codey isn't holding his breath.

"There's going to be a lot of debate between the candidates for governor," he said, "but I don't think anyone is going to ask them, 'Do you have an idea for a state song?' "