Even before freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler and Republican Jon Runyan gave their introductions to a capacity crowd of about 600 in Cherry Hill on Monday night, the atmosphere was charged.

Demonstrators for Adler and Runyan lined the curbs outside the Katz Jewish Community Center, flashing candidate signs and waving to motorists.

Inside, as the two major-party candidates in New Jersey's tightest congressional race spoke, there were occasional cheers and boos from supporters from each camp.

The two have similar positions on many issues.

They agree that Iran should not have nuclear capability, that Israel should be protected as an independent state, that government spending should be cut, and that abortions should remain legal.

So this race is coming down to their attacks and counterattacks. Both men are vying to represent the Third District, which includes Cherry Hill in Camden County and runs through Burlington and Ocean Counties.

Adler bristled at Runyan's assertions that he is a puppet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He said last night: "I am considered one of the most centrist members of Congress."

Runyan said: "I find it offensive that I'm being attacked for following the laws of the state."

In TV ads and on the campaign trail, Adler has attacked Runyan for taking advantage of the state farmland assessment program, which allows farmers to get reduced property taxes on their land. Runyan lives on a 25-acre spread in Mount Laurel. On 20 of those acres he grazes donkeys and cuts timber, so he pays less than $500 in property taxes. He pays $57,000 in taxes on the five acres where his home sits.

Saying he was offended and was legally taking the tax break, though, didn't stop occasional hee-haws from the audience.

At one point, Adler said: "Do not make fun of his donkeys."

In recent days, the race has become increasingly tense, particularly with Runyan's campaign getting traction last week on its belief that Adler's campaign propped up a sham candidate to draw votes from Runyan.

The audience jeered as Adler said, "As far as I know, we have nothing to do with it."

The candidate, Peter DeStefano, is running under the name of NJ Tea Party, but organized tea party groups in the district have endorsed Runyan.

Citing unnamed sources, the Camden Courier-Post reported last week that Adler's campaign and local Democratic Party supporters were behind the DeStefano candidacy. Adler has said he believes his campaign was not involved in creating the DeStefano candidacy. DeStefano has repeatedly insisted that he is a genuine candidate and not a spoiler.

Regardless of the truth, DeStefano could draw votes away from Runyan, analysts say.

The audience seemed to agree on one thing - it applauded both candidates when they said they wanted to curtail government spending.

Runyan called for laying off government workers and cutting the pay of those who stayed.

"There are a lot of simple solutions that can control the size of government," Runyan said. "There's lots of waste."

Adler said he had voted against more than half of the spending bills since entering Congress in January 2009. He said agricultural subsidies should be cut and troops should be withdrawn from Iraq to save money.

The Jewish Community Relations Council and the young adult division of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey sponsored the forum.