With an average-size lawmaker facing a massive former NFL lineman, the Third District's congressional race brings a little Middle Earth to South Jersey. Perhaps its disorienting proportions are to blame for its fun-house sensibility.

The miniature donkeys in the campaign, for example, are not a figurative reference to the comparatively tiny Democratic incumbent, Rep. John Adler. They are actual (and probably adorable) animals being raised for tax purposes by the elephantine Republican, Jon Runyan.

And the tea partyer on the ballot is by most accounts not a conservative maverick, but a Democratic decoy.

Beyond the high jinks, though, is a substantive contrast.

Runyan offers little more than lightweight antigovernment rhetoric compared with the carefully considered record of JOHN ADLER, whom The Inquirer endorses for reelection.

The Third, which stretches from Cherry Hill through Burlington County to the Shore, elected Adler to his freshman term in the Democratic wave of 2008. With trends now favoring the GOP, it's toss-up territory again.

A Cherry Hill attorney and former state senator, Adler supported the cap-and-trade bill and defends the stimulus package. But he broke with most of his party in supporting an extension of tax rates that favor the wealthy and voting against health-care reform.

Unlike Runyan, however, Adler wants to fix rather than repeal the health-care law. Though his nuanced position may smack of political triangulation to some critics, he offers a reasonable policy rationale, objecting to the bill's lack of cost controls and a public option.

Runyan, for his part, is a reliable opponent of almost everything Congress has done over the past two years. But he is short on alternatives that go beyond platitudes.

The former Eagle's donkey husbandry, which qualifies part of his Mount Laurel estate for a low agricultural tax rate, is at worst a small sin, albeit a very funny one.

The campaign of NJ Tea Party candidate Peter DeStefano, apparently concocted by Adler's allies, is a more troubling reminder that the region's Democrats are tainted by their organization's penchant for dirty tricks and worse.

Just to the north in New Jersey's Fourth District, which extends from Trenton and Burlington County to the Shore, longtime Republican Rep. Chris Smith of Hamilton faces an energetic challenge from Lakewood trial lawyer Howard Kleinhendler, who advocates ending the Bush tax cuts and spending the revenue on infrastructure.

Kleinhendler charges that Smith's involvement in international issues such as human trafficking shows he has lost touch with the district, but that's a misguided attempt to turn an asset into a liability. CHRIS SMITH, a principled and effective congressman on issues ranging from veterans to the environment, deserves reelection.

Inquirer Editorial:

Chat live about the John Adler-Jon Runyan race Monday at 1 p.m. at www.philly.com.