The race between freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler and Republican newcomer Jon Runyan, a former Eagles tackle, remains close despite Adler's numerical lead, according to a Richard Stockton College poll released Monday.

The poll's sponsor cautions that not much should be made of Adler's advantage of 38 percent to Runyan's 30 percent.

"There's no clear person ahead, even though we see 8 points, because of that margin of error. And it's only September," said Sharon Schulman, executive director of Stockton's William J. Hughes Center, which sponsored the poll. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

A third-party candidate, Peter DeStefano, who identifies himself with the phrase "NJ Tea Party," had 7.6 percent of the vote. However, tea party groups in the district, which spans Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County, have endorsed Runyan.

The poll of 1,200 likely South Jersey voters, conducted between Sept. 21 and 23, had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

In sections covering congressional districts, 400 likely voters were questioned.

Veteran incumbents U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, a Camden County Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican who represents southern Shore counties, each had 59 percent of the vote against their challengers.

The poll queried all 1,200 respondents on the biggest issues facing them, and 66 percent chose jobs and the economy as their top issue. Another 27 percent said it was health care.

Voters "are saying, 'Feel my pain.' That's their biggest concern," Schulman said. Interestingly, it is not helping the tea party at this time, she said.

As for the Adler-Runyan race, the poll gives a glimpse of the role of independent DeStefano's moniker, NJ Tea Party.

Schulman said DeStefano had little reason to rejoice.

"Based on what's happening in other states, I thought that the NJ Tea Party candidate would have been doing better," she said.

The Stockton College/Zogby Poll is the first independent voter survey since Labor Day, the traditional start of the general election campaign season.

Another poll, taken by Rutgers University in August, set the race with Adler at 31 percent, Runyan at 25 percent, and DeStefano at 4 percent. DeStefano, however, was not identified in the Rutgers poll with the label voters will see Nov. 2: NJ Tea Party. In that poll, DeStefano took more votes from Adler than he did from Runyan.

Tea party endorsements in the Republican primary were credited with helping former Tabernacle committeeman Justin Murphy get 10,000 votes to Runyan's 14,000 in the low-turnout GOP primary.

Whether casual voters will know that DeStefano isn't affiliated with organized local groups is unknown.

Both the Adler and Runyan camps tried to put the best face they could on the numbers.

Adler's campaign issued a statement calling the poll "yet another strong indicator that John Adler is soundly beating Jon Runyan." But backers said they weren't taking anything for granted.

Runyan's political consultant Chris Russell said they shouldn't.

"An incumbent congressman at 38 in the ballot is akin to a dead man walking," he said. "We feel John Adler has superior name recognition in the district, and if he can only muster 38 percent, we feel this is terrific for Jon Runyan."

Stockton will sponsor another poll in late October, Schulman said.