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Both parties turn up the heat for November

Democrats, who control both houses in Trenton, are taking nothing for granted. Republicans, for their part, point out the need for alternatives.

With last week's municipal elections behind them, Democrats and Republicans are tuning up their political machines for a handful of legislative races in Atlantic, Burlington and Cape May Counties, where campaign money will flow like never before.

Democrats already have a choke hold on the Statehouse, and this year they are taking aim at the Republican holdouts in South Jersey. In all three counties, Republicans are defending State Senate seats and trying to get back a few recently lost Assembly seats.

While most of the major candidates there are running unopposed in the June 5 primary, they are beginning to lay the groundwork for the November race.

"It is our intention that there is no red seat safe," said Democratic Party chairman Joseph Cryan, a Union County assemblyman. Statewide, the party put up candidates against all Republican legislators, with the exception of Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance of Hunterdon County.

"The way I see it, we're working on their turf. That's our strategy," he said.

Last week's victories in Burlington County's biggest town - Evesham - and a slim loss in Ocean County's Lavallette emboldened Democrats, who are pouring resources into races thought unwinnable in the past.

But Rich Levesque, Burlington County GOP director, isn't buying it.

"I don't think those results are meaningful at all," he said. "The Evesham election was based on local issues. There were only 7,000 votes and I don't think you can equate that with a November victory."

Republicans are planning to blame Democrats for New Jersey's having the nation's highest property taxes and to offer themselves as an alternative.

The Democratic machine is awash in early money compared with the Republicans'. Finance reports show that, so far this year, Democrats have raised $10 million more than the Republicans' $7.5 million.

Republicans, though, aren't ready to give up just because the Democrats are filled with thoughts of sweeping victories. They have invited President Bush to Edison to raise money for their candidates on May 30. Although polls show Bush unpopular with most voters in the state, New Jersey Republican donors here have given generously to his campaigns.

In Cape May County, GOP chairman David VonSavage said: "The Republicans are already working. They're out and they're running."

There, Democratic Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew is challenging GOP State Sen. Nick Asselta, a senator since 2004, in a district where political authorities from both parties can't remember whether there ever was a Democrat in that seat.

Van Drew's numbers have been getting better with each successive election, and last time - 2005 - he helped elect a second Democrat to the Assembly. His highest vote tally was 41,400 in 2005, compared with Asselta's most recent election in 2003, when he took in 31,112.

However, these two have met before. In 2001, when Asselta was still in the Assembly, he polled higher than Van Drew, 36,392 to 32,271. Still, because Van Drew came in second, he was able to knock a longtime Republican out of office and become the third Democrat in the history of the state to win a seat from Cape May - and the first to get a second term.

This race will be difficult to call because both Asselta and Van Drew are well-known in the district and each has powerful backers.

In Burlington County's strongly Republican Eighth District, the GOP's efforts to put up a new slate of legislative candidates had unintended consequences.

Thirteen-year Assemblyman Francis Bodine got booted out of the race. Bodine got over the hurt and decided to get even, finding fast friends in the Democratic Party. He is running as a Democrat for the state Senate seat now held by Republican Martha Bark, who announced earlier this year, amid a state Attorney General's investigation into her several government jobs, that she would not run again.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Diane Allen, the Burlington Republican, can expect a race from Democrat Rich Dennison, a Florence lawyer and former Clinton White House intern.

Atlantic County voters have been sending an increasing number of Democrats to state and county offices. Democrats believe that former Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan, who is now an assemblyman, is their best shot in 25 years for capturing a State Senate seat.

Whelan will run against the widely known Egg Harbor Township Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough, who was appointed by the GOP to replace the retired state Sen. William Gormley.

The Camden Senate seat will be occupied by a newcomer because Democratic State Sen. Wayne Bryant is not seeking another term. Caught in a high-velocity whirlwind of accusations of no-show jobs, influence peddling and a federal indictment, Bryant decided to step away from public office.

Democrats picked Camden City Councilwoman Dana Redd to replace him. She is unopposed in the primary and faces Republican Hans Berg in the general election. Given the district's voting history - an overwhelming tendency to vote for Democrats - and the imbalance in fund-raising, Redd is the likely winner but Berg promises to make it a fight.