One thing Carl Lewis' race to remain a candidate for state Senate has revealed is that New Jersey needs clearer residency rules for political candidates.

Lewis, a nine-time gold-medal Olympic track-and-field star, is an exceptional athlete. And, as an athlete, he knows there are rules to the game. They create a level playing field where those with great talent rise above the rest, as he did.

But when it comes to politics, Lewis has had some trouble playing by the rules.

He filed to run as a Democrat for a Burlington County state Senate seat in April. Republicans cried foul, saying Lewis didn't meet New Jersey's four-year residency requirement.

In the ensuing episodic battle, in which the parties have rumbled through state and federal courts, some basic facts have not been disputed:

Lewis has owned homes in Mount Laurel since 2005. He is connected to the community, in part, through his work as a volunteer track coach at his alma mater, Willingboro High School.

But he has also lived in California, where he pursued an acting and appearance career. Two years ago, he voted in California as a California resident. And that is the heart of the Republicans' argument.

Democrats argue that the courts have liberally interpreted residency when it comes to voters and candidates to make elections as inclusive as possible. They say the rules aren't clear enough to deprive Lewis of an opportunity to run for state Senate and that the voters of the Eighth District, on the eastern side of Burlington County, deserve an opportunity to vote for or against him.

What is most unsettling is that the rules are not clear.

As recently as December 2009, a Superior Court judge turned down a challenge to Jersey City Councilwoman Nidia Lopez's residency. Like Lewis, she maintained homes in two states. Lopez had a home in Florida where she claimed a tax exemption reserved only for Florida residents. But the court nonetheless considered her a New Jersey resident.

So there really isn't a clear definition of "resident" for candidates for office in New Jersey.

In the Lewis case, saying that a man who voted in California two years ago has been a New Jersey resident for four years is a stretch, even if it applies to an Olympic long jumper.

But the definition of "resident" needs to be further clarified for the sake of the voters. Right now, they and any candidates who hope to compete on a level playing field are left in confusion.