Finally, the opening bell has rung on South Jersey's best political slugfest of the season.

Wearing Republican red is former Eagles' lineman Jon Runyan, a political newcomer and recent GOP registrant running in the Third Congressional District, which spans Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County. In Democratic blue is the Harvard-educated, freshman U.S. Rep. John Adler, who is in the prime of his political career.

A day after the primary election, the two traded light punches Wednesday morning, with Adler challenging Runyan to a string of debates "early and often." Runyan said he was open to debates. Both avoided debates with their primary challengers.

Runyan took a pledge to limit himself to eight years in Congress. Adler's campaign declined to say whether he was for or against term limits.

Even before the official start of the general election campaign, these men couldn't wait to get their hands on each other.

While still in the primary season, Runyan paid for campaign literature that said Adler had "a history of higher taxes and radical votes." Adler's campaign spun out a video asking "Where are you, Jon Runyan?" and a news release reminding anyone who read it that Runyan takes a farmland tax break on his Mount Laurel home because he grazes four donkeys there and harvests timber.

So it doesn't take a political analyst to see how this one is going.

The matchup brings together two men who have been in tough scrapes before.

Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 155 pounds, Adler, 52, of Cherry Hill, has been in tough fights before. In 2008, he snatched this seat from more than 100 years of Republican control. In 1991, he took a state Senate seat from a Republican who had held it for 14 years and became one of the very few Democrats that year to win much of anything.

Now he has to defend his title in a Republican-leaning district without the help of a presidential election at the top of the ticket.

Runyan's imposing 6-foot-7, 330-pound frame is softened by an easy smile and soft voice. The 36-year-old Mount Laurel resident, who retired from professional football this year, is expected to try to capitalize on the electorate's anger with incumbents.

He will have to prove he has the political and legislative chops to take on Washington at a time the nation is at war, is sick of struggling in a weak economy, and is gasping at the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Both men have significant political machines in their corners.

Adler has the South Jersey Democrats, who have rolled from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean, winning seats long held by Republicans.

Runyan has the Burlington and Ocean County Republican organizations - two of the state's most successful GOP machines.

"Both sides are going to bring their A game. They'll need to bring the A game to win," said Runyan's campaign consultant, Chris Russell.

But both have problems.

Adler, who won handily in Burlington County two years ago, may have some trouble there this year because Democrats have lost ground. Rick Perr, the former Burlington Democratic County Committee chairman who had pushed the party to win some countywide offices in a Republican stronghold, resigned last August. He was embroiled in a scandal over the party's relationship to a political action committee that figured in a statewide criminal investigation.

That same scandal, which involved organ harvesting, money laundering, and the arrests of 45 public officials and rabbis, is likely to be in the background in the general election.

On the Republican side, Daniel Van Pelt, the former assemblyman from the Ocean County side of the district, was convicted in May on bribery and extortion charges in the scandal and is set to be sentenced in August. And Runyan's challenger Justin Murphy ran a close second to him in the primary there, with Runyan getting 7,265 votes in Ocean County and Murphy getting 6,487 votes, according to unofficial returns.

In Runyan's home Burlington County, he beat Murphy by better than 2-1, with 8,294 votes to Murphy's 4,092 votes.

Political scientist Ben Dworkin of Rider University, however, said the scandal "hurt Burlington County Democrats far more than Ocean County Republicans."

He said that Perr's role in bulking up the Democrats in Burlington County would be missed but that the Ocean County GOP was barely scratched when Van Pelt was indicted in 2009. Instead, it went on to win Ocean County for Republican Gov. Christie.

Still, voters could start learning more about Van Pelt in campaign literature attacking Runyan.

And this race could burnish or tarnish Christie's reputation with national GOP activists. In his own 2009 race, he proved a conservative Republican could win a state in the Northeast. Now he's got to show if he can transfer his popularity.

At Runyan's headquarters Tuesday, Christie called on Murphy and his supporters to "come together" and back Runyan.

Murphy has said he would support Runyan in a general election, but Wednesday said he was not able to control the independent-minded tea party groups who backed him. Runyan was supported by the Independence Hall Tea Party, which says it covers the Delaware Valley region. One issue facing Republicans across the country is whether tea party activists, who supported candidates against the GOP establishment, shake hands and take on the Democrats in the fall.

Adler and Runyan each have a lot to prove in the coming months.

Runyan, whose fund-raising was called "anemic" by Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray, will have to raise money for two reasons: He needs it to get his message out to voters, and he needs it to prove to the Republican establishment in New Jersey and around the country that he's worth their support.

"I think they need to see a certain effort by Runyan, and that's going to include more significant fund-raising, because that's how people judge how well a candidate is doing," said Dworkin.

Adler, who already has raised 10 times as much money for this race as Runyan, will need every cent to convince voters he has followed their wishes in Washington and that he is not the typical incumbent.

"Adler is going to have to say he's a renegade. He's a maverick. He's going to have to distance himself from Washington," said Monmouth's Murray.

Adler voted against President Obama's health-care plan and administration-backed spending bills, but he is a longtime Democrat.

The math in this contest has been unpredictable lately, with voters calling for change whether the candidate they believe can deliver it is a Democrat or a Republican. It voted for Obama in 2008 and Christie in 2009.

And that makes this one of the most watched and interesting races in the nation. This is one of about 80 House seats around the nation that analysts say are in play.

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