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Opinion: All Too Quiet On The Eastern Front

Without billboards, bumper stickers, and attack ads, how can we be sure there really is an election?

Where are the lawn signs? Where are the bumper stickers? We're in the midst of a riveting presidential campaign. There are three weeks until election day. But I saw many more Obama '08 and McCain signs four years ago than I'm seeing Obama '12 and Romney this October.

Could it be that New Jerseyans are really not following the presidential race very closely? Are we all a bit numb from the Great Recession? Has the disappointment in some quarters over Obama's presidency suggested that it really doesn't matter who we elect, we're going to get a centrist corporatist presidency in any event?

I learned a lesson about lawn signs in 1993. There were three Republicans running for the nomination that year to go up against Gov. Jim Florio: Christie Whitman, Cary Edwards, and Jim Wallwork. Right before the June primary, the state was flooded with Edwards signs, the Route 1 corridor especially. Living in that corridor at the time, I decided that Edwards was going to win the primary. He didn't. From that day on I've stopped considering lawn signs as any kind of determining factor in predicting the outcome of an election.

But still you'd think you'd see more action on the streets and billboards and bumper stickers than we're seeing this fall.

Part of it, no doubt, is that we are not a battleground state. We don't see the ads. We don't get the candidates visiting us (except to raise money behind closed doors). The election is in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. Those people get the electricity of the on-the-ground campaigning, the nastiness and cleverness of the ads. They are the ones exposed to the lies and distortions, the direct appeal for their votes, the excitement of a good old-fashioned barnburner of a race.

And make no mistake -- it is a barnburner. I wonder if there are more lawn signs and bumper stickers in those swing states than the skimpy assortment we're seeing here.

When I think about the excitement of a presidential race, I think of the night in 1996 that Bob Dole passed through North Jersey like a lightning bolt at 4:30 in the morning. He was on a three-day, last-ditch, 72-hour bus sprint across the country, stopping every 90 minutes or so around the clock. He was scheduled to get to the Bendix Diner at the juncture of Routes 46 and 17 around 3:00 a.m.

I was out there with a cameraman, lots of other media, and about 300 hearty souls either Republican or curious.

It was a cold night. Floodlights and TV lights made it feel like a Hollywood set. The Dole bus was nowhere to be seen at 3:00 am, or 3:30, or 4:00. We were all freezing. The tripods were set up on top of some kind of flatbed truck or bus rooftop across from the lit-up neon sign of the Bendix.

Finally, around 4:30 the Dole bus pulled in and Dole was hoisted to some kind of riser, where he gave a raspy exhausted wishful speech about how the momentum was shifting. When it was over, I got to shout a couple of questions up at him and got a couple of good answers. And then it was home to bed with the event still reverberating in my brain. He was there probably a total of 10 minutes.

Now, it's all being filtered through Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and Anderson Cooper.

We have our U.S. Senate race, of course. But that, too, has been a kind of sleepy affair -- at least so far. Bob Menendez and Joe Kyrillos have done three broadcast debates, but nothing has really crashed through as an issue or talking point. I was on the panel for the first debate at Montclair State University, co-sponsored by NJTV and North Jersey Media Group (Bergen Record). For some reason, it was easier to come up with questions for Kyrillos than for Menendez, whose voting record is more difficult to deconstruct or at least less well known to those of us stationed in Trenton.

And while Kyrillos makes a good argument against the Democrat, he doesn't seem to be winning the argument -- or losing it. They're just having a standard Democrat-Republican moment.

Kyrillos is a very nice guy. "Everybody likes Joe," someone said recently. But Menendez is a pro, a smart and well-seasoned politician who seems never to be off his game. Whoever told him to talk about the middle class this year drilled it into him. Kyrillos tries to paint him as a liberal ideologue who can't work with Republicans. Menendez's rejoinder is that in the Legislature, "Joe voted with his party 90 percent of the time." Only 90 percent? You mean, he actually departed from Gov. Chris Christie on one of every ten votes? I'd have guessed the number was more like 98 percent, given the kind of party discipline Trenton Republicans have enforced.

I covered Christie campaigning with Kyrillos this morning at the Princetonian Diner in West Windsor. It added a little juice to the campaign. The media were out in force because Chris Christie attracts cameras and reporters. The governor said he is scheduled to do this kind of retail stop with Kyrillos five more times before the election, which will shine a bit more attention on the Republican candidate, who badly needs it.

The negative ads in this race haven't started yet. The TV spots have been positive so far -- a rarity, to be commended. How long it will last, one can only guess. My guess: not long.

And then there are the House races -- or would have been had the Congressional Redistricting Commission not drawn such safe districts again. The only real race is in the 3rd District, the Jon Runyan-Shelley Adler district. Even here, the commission made the district just a bit safer for Runyan. Adler is a smart woman and has the weight of sympathy on her side, running as the widow of the man who held the seat before Runyan. But Runyan has become a better politician in his first two years in Congress, he has the talented Chris Russell as his political consultant, and somehow manages to pick up union support. Adler was endorsed by the Philadelphia Inquirer last weekend, but Runyan was beating her 49-39 in a recent public poll.

Beyond that, there are some interesting matchups: Assemblyman Upendra Chivikula challenging Leonard Lance in the 7th; Adam Gussen of Teaneck trying to dislodge Scott Garrett in the 5th, the district that many Democrats wanted to see Steve Rothman run in; and John Arvenites against Rodney Frelinghuysen in the new 8th.

Chivikula is the ranking Asian-American politician in the state. Gussen comes off as intelligent and down to earth. And Arvenites is a former Roseland mayor working full-time to knock off Frelinghuysen in a district somewhat more Democratic than Rodney's old 11th district. But let's face it: it would be a miracle if any of them won. If Romney and Paul Ryan win, by the way, Scott Garrett is in line to become the next chairman of the House Budget Committee -- which would be a good thing for New Jersey if Garrett only believed in spending any money.

I almost forgot the 8th, where Bill Pascrell is defending his seat against Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. No one expects an upset here. The most notable thing about the race is that Boteach seems to be getting about a million dollars from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolled Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential race. Boteach criticizes Pascrell for his associations with a couple of controversial characters in the district, and Pascrell ignores the "celebrity" rabbi.

Maybe the real excitement on election night is the Perth Amboy mayor's race. Wilda Diaz, the woman who succeeded Joe Vas, against Billy Delgado, a former Vas rival whose consultant sent Diaz an e-mail calling her "stupid." The school board in Perth Amboy is fighting furiously with the schools superintendent. The mayor and Delgado are in a war. So forget about the presidency, the Senate, the House. The place to be this election night is at the foot of the Outerbridge Crossing in the fair little city of Perth Amboy.

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