Analysts identify issues likely to shape election

Once considered reliably Democratic, state now seen as up for grabs.

By: Jennifer Potash
   WEST WINDSOR — Once considered a reliably Democratic-leaning state, New Jersey’s electoral votes are now up for grabs largely due to concerns about terrorism, according to a panel of political observers and university professors who took part in a public forum Friday at Mercer County Community College.
   Roger Bodman, a Republican analyst, cited several New Jersey and national polls that show the presidential race a dead heat in New Jersey. The reason, in a word, is terrorism, he said.
   "In my view, this has become a one-issue campaign," said Mr. Bodman, who served in the cabinet of former Gov. Thomas Kean. "It is being waged on George Bush’s terms and on his greatest strength."
   The key demographic is not the "soccer mom" of the 2000 election, who worried about education and heath care as top priorities, but the "security mom," who fears a weak defense policy will allow more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, Mr. Bodman said.
   Julie Roginsky, a Democratic political consultant, agreed with Mr. Bodman that New Jersey is a battleground state. But the close race has more to do with the Bush campaign’s superior "spinning" of 9/11 into a positive issue for the president than Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry’s positions, she said.
   In the end, the New Jersey electorate will vote on the so-called kitchen-table issues where the candidates differ, such as health-care costs, the future of stem-cell research and the economy, Ms. Roginsky said.
   Miguel Centeno, professor of sociology at Princeton University, said the war in Iraq is "an absolute disaster and a complete catastrophe," but will not determine the outcome of the election.
   And the reason is largely "gut reaction," stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks on the part of the voters in choosing a candidate, Professor Centeno said.
   "This goes back to this almost visceral, emotional perspective on the event, not an analysis of, well, this person made decisions A, B and C and we got D," he said. "But barring a catastrophe in Iraq or the United States, I don’t think these events in Iraq will shape the election."
   The lack of a "tipping point" that turns the voters against the war in Iraq, coupled with sympathy for the soldiers serving overseas, may push the election in President Bush’s favor, Professor Centeno said.
   Joseph Seneca, a professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said President Bush is vulnerable on economic issues but so far voters haven’t made that a central concern.
   "Is it the economy or am I stupid?" he asked, adding a slight twist to the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign slogan, "It’s the economy, stupid."
   Economic or "pocketbook issues," such as keeping well-paid jobs in the United States, are key points in states that suffered losses during the recent recession as well as in New Jersey, which has led the nation in job growth for five years, Professor Seneca said.
   "There is a sense of economic unease and economic insecurity in the country and also in New Jersey," said Professor Seneca, who is the chairman of the New Jersey Council of Economic Advisors.
   Some of those concerns stem from reaction to corporate accounting scandals, outsourcing of middle-income jobs, spiraling budget deficits and huge spikes in energy costs, he said,
   "These are the ingredients that make an electorate deeply concerned about its pocketbook and paycheck," he said.