"Chris Christie and the party hacks . . . they're not conservatives," blares Steve Lonegan's latest radio ad.

Lonegan is standing to the "left of most Democrats" on letting accused terrorists move to U.S. prisons, screams a Christie statement.

In the race to be the Republican nominee for governor, the two principal candidates are battling for the prize of the primary season: the conservative Republicans, who are among the most faithful off-year election voters in New Jersey.

Analysts say people who call themselves conservatives make up between half and two-thirds of the typical Republican gubernatorial primary voters. Polling indicates that a segment of conservatives, those who are more moderate and pragmatic than their peers, is still actively assessing the candidates.

"They're fighting for that middle group - the ones who say they are conservative but are not ideologically stringent," said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University's polling institute.

That is why what happens to prisoners at an American detention facility in Cuba has come up in this race, as well as abortion and gay marriage. Both candidates are speaking in code to appeal to that undecided group of conservative voters.

"Conservatives are like ants," said Dave Murray, a GOP strategist who has worked gubernatorial races and describes himself as a moderate. "They emit their own chemicals and pick up and receive chemicals like army ants would. They really develop a sense of who the conservative candidate is."

The hard-core conservatives are already with Lonegan, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. Lonegan has been working them for years.

He is so well-known in the national conservative community that the Club for Growth made the unusual move of endorsing him, and a group called Freedom's Defense Fund, which has never engaged in a New Jersey statehouse race, is running cable television ads slamming Christie.

Lonegan's long courtship also paid off in his campaign account. An Inquirer analysis of state campaign finance reports shows half of Lonegan's contributors are from outside New Jersey, including places such as Key Largo, Fla., and Wasilla, Alaska.

In contrast, only 10 percent of Christie's contributions come from out-of-state sources. Much of his money comes from reliable Republican donors.

Between running for governor in 2005 and this campaign, Lonegan headed the New Jersey chapter of Americans For Prosperity, leading demonstrations against tax and toll increases and generally keeping his name in the news. He also brought with him the group's fund-raising list, which he developed, and worked it to raise money for this campaign.

Only New Jersey and Virginia have governor's races this year, and conservatives have been eyeing New Jersey since November - when Republicans lost the White House - itching for a horse to bet on, said political scientist Brigid Harrison, of Montclair State University.

"There's no doubt that national, staunchly conservative forces are paying attention to Steve Lonegan's candidacy," she said.

On the other side is Christie, whose political views were less well-known at the outset of the June 2 primary race. Christie served one term as a Morris County freeholder a decade ago, practiced law, worked on the campaign of President George W. Bush and was the state's U.S. attorney for much of this decade. The federal job prohibited him from getting involved in politics.

In this campaign, he has staked out fiscally and socially conservative positions.

To prove he is just as conservative as - if not more conservative than - his opponent, Christie baited Lonegan into the Guantanamo Bay question during their last televised debate.

Christie said he would fight transfers of detainees to New Jersey prisons, even though there has been no formal discussion of moving the suspected terrorists to the Garden State. Lonegan said he would rather have the prisoners in jail - even in New Jersey.

"I want them in prison. If that terrorist has to be in prison in New Jersey, that's where they belong," he said.

To longtime Republican strategist Bill Pascoe, who has run statewide races in New Jersey, that answer signaled a winning moment for Christie.

"Hello and goodbye. Two weeks to go [in the primary] and case closed," he said. Lonegan "gave Christie the last two weeks of his campaign."

Pascoe is critical, though, of Christie's recent attacks on Lonegan, saying they leave "blood on the floor" that would have to be mopped up after the primary so Republicans can unite to challenge Democratic Gov. Corzine.

In late April, Christie abandoned his strategy of ignoring Lonegan, showing his campaign's apparent fear that Lonegan would capture the conservatives, and directly criticized him in news conferences and a radio ad. He also loaded up his views on abortion and gay marriage on his Web site - he's against both.

When Christie marched out endorsements from some of the state's best-known conservative political figures, Lonegan had harsh words for them. He was especially hard on Bret Schundler, who won the 2001 Republican gubernatorial primary. Lonegan noted Schundler worked for "liberal Democrat" Gary Hart and had been endorsed by abortion-rights groups.

Schundler said that was "all true" - but that he changed his views over time, becoming a fiscal and social conservative.

He and Lonegan ran in the 2005 GOP primary and split the conservative vote, with Schundler earning almost four times as many votes as Lonegan. Both lost to the moderate millionaire Doug Forrester, proving that while conservatives are important in Republican primaries, they are not the only voters who will decide them.