Towering above about six dozen Republicans who braved last night's snowy mix to meet him, former Eagles tackle Jon Runyan made his debut as a candidate for the U.S. House, shedding his football uniform for a dark-blue suit.
"I think we can go out and run an awesome campaign," he said as he met and chatted with a friendly crowd of Republicans in his first public appearance since deciding in November to run for office.
Speaking at the Camden County GOP's annual Lincoln Day fund-raiser at the Mansion in Voorhees, Runyan bristled at being referred to as what he called a "celebrity athlete millionaire."
He said he had grown up working-class in Flint, Mich. His father was out of work for two years, and when he had work, he took on three or four jobs to support his family.
"There wasn't anything that was given to me," he said.
Runyan, though, probably will hear worse things said about him as he runs in one of the nation's most competitive House races.
He emerged this week as the top organization candidate when his chief rival dropped out of the race to unseat freshman Rep. John Adler, a Democrat.
The Third District, which had been in Republican hands for more than a century, runs through Ocean and Burlington Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County.
The three county Republican organizations plan to endorse Runyan by mid-March, and he then plans to formally start his campaign.
This House race is expected to be one of the most expensive in the nation.
With all 435 House seats and 37 Senate seats up, analysts are predicting Republicans will pick up seats in both chambers. The House holds 255 Democrats and 178 Republicans, with tough races for Democrats, including Adler, in more than 50 contests. Republicans have only a half-dozen seats at risk.
Runyan, 36, of Mount Laurel, got his wish of fending off a messy primary when Toms River Councilman Maurice "Moe" Hill, a dentist and retired Navy rear admiral, dropped out of the race Wednesday. Hill said in an interview that he just couldn't match the former professional athlete's ability to raise money and spend his own.
"You're up against an insurmountable object of money which you can't overcome," Hill said. Though disappointed, he joked: "They didn't take my birthday away. I still have four healthy grandchildren. And my wife still loves me."
Republicans believe that Adler was helped in his 2008 victory by a divisive GOP primary that pitted the party machines in Burlington and Ocean Counties against each other.
Adler already has $1.6 million in his war chest with more on the way. Mindful that the district had elected Republicans for years, Adler has split with President Obama and Democrats on several key issues, including health care and bank bailouts.
Runyan, who ended his football career this season as a San Diego Charger, has been unclear about whether he would put his own money into the campaign.
But it was clear last night that Cherry Hill Republicans were excited about a candidate with star power.
"He greeted us at the door," said Terry Land, a Cherry Hill committeewoman. "That's unusual. At a typical political event, you try to get in there to talk" to the candidates.
Rich Ambrosino, the Cherry Hill GOP chairman, said Runyan's football career had given him strong name recognition in the Philadelphia suburbs. And, he said, "I'm impressed with his grasp of the issues. I think he's going to be a solid candidate."