BELLEVILLE, N.J. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez's re-election bid is made easier by having President Barack Obama at the top of the ballot. But because the Obama campaign can count on winning New Jersey without spending time or money here, Menendez has been campaigning for a second six-year term without the benefit of a national Democratic field operation or the occasional presidential drop-by.
The outcome of the presidential race in New Jersey is even more critical to state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a moderate Republican who chaired Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign here and is now trying to defeat Menendez. Kyrillos, who has served 24 years in the state Legislature but is not well-known outside Monmouth County, needs Romney to close the gap with Obama if he's to have a shot at unseating Menendez.
With their own political futures tethered to the fate of their party's respective presidential candidate, it's little surprise that Menendez has been trying to capitalize on Romney's "47 percent" remark about the number of Americans who don't pay income taxes and Kyrillos' has been courting the female vote to try to cut into Menendez's widening lead in public opinion polls.
"There's a predisposition on the part of the many in New Jersey to vote for the Democratic side," Kyrillos, 52, of Middletown, acknowledged in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "Bob has the advantage of being a Democratic incumbent in a state that leans Democratic. He's got more money, but he's not going to have what I have — many, many people in this state who believe in America and know they are not doing well and want a different way."
"If we could both shake the hand of every voter in the state, I'd win," said Kyrillos.
Menendez, who is 58, tells it differently. He says Romney and Kyrillos are out of touch with the middle and working classes, people like Menendez's own parents, a garment factory worker and itinerant carpenter, who worked hard to give their children the chance at a higher education and a more affluent life than they had.
Menendez raises the subject of his modest Union City upbringing often while campaigning, as a segue to his positions on health care, jobs and higher education. He uses his story to highlight the contrast between his Democratic views and those expressed by Republicans, including Kyrillos. And, lately, he's been using it to court the 47 percent of voters who earn too little to be required to pay federal income taxes.
"We want to make sure people understand there are real people, real Americans behind the term '47 percent,'" said Menendez, who lives in North Bergen. "To me it's disdainful how Gov. Romney can disparage nearly half the American people with his remarks."
Kyrillos and Menendez were both campaigning in the northern part of the state last week, doing the kind of retail politicking that seems more suited to local office-seeking than a statewide race for U.S. Senate.
Menendez delivered a newly minted 12-minute stump speech at a Disabled American Veterans hall in Belleville focusing on the 47 percent. Romney's remarks, which he has called inelegant, have become a Democratic talking point.
Menendez focused on two or three senior citizens in the sparse audience to tout his support for universal access to health care. He then zoned in on the veterans to say he's pushed to increase federal spending on veterans' health care, disability payments and survivor benefits. Then, he talked about something more personal — equal access to higher education.
"I want (higher education) to be a birthright for every one of our children willing to work hard, having the ability to be able to achieve the fulfillment of their God-given potential," Menendez said. "It's very different than what Gov. Romney's view that you get the education you can afford. In my case, that would have been nothing, and I would not be a United States senator today."
Afterward, a woman approached, and he offered to do what he could to help a loyal Democrat secure more hours of nursing care for her homebound husband with Alzheimer's.
Kyrillos was in neighboring Morris County at about the same time, making his care to about a dozen seniors — and an equal number of local officeholders — at the Baldwin Oaks Senior Apartments in Parsippany. There, he touted his connection to Romney and sought to tie what he characterized as Menendez's lackluster record to Obama's faltering economic policies. His approach would be different, he often vows.
Emphasizing that he was "the kind of Republican that works with everybody," he aimed his message at voters he hopes to woo away from Menendez, like Jackie and Joseph Minsavage, both registered Democrats.
"We wanted to hear what everyone has to say before voting," said Jackie Minsavage, 72. "I want to know who is going to do the best for us now, for seniors, or for those just starting out in life."
Acknowledging the Chinese immigrant seniors in the crowd, Kyrillos related his family story as the son of parents of Lebanese descent.
"You know how great it is to be an American, to be born here, or to come here and become and American," Kyrillos said. "America is the greatest country on earth, and we see that slipping away."
Shally Li, 78, who emigrated from China to New Jersey decades ago, said she was eager to hear from the candidates how they planned to fix the economy.
"Seniors are concerned about our benefits, recently we've seen them go down a bit," she said. "It's also good if he (Kyrillos) can help make the American economy progress and create more jobs."
A victory by Kyrillos would mark the first time since 1972 that New Jersey has elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate.
As the Nov. 6 election gets closer, both candidates have intensified their campaign schedules. Look for them at fall festivals and street fairs, at senior citizen centers and schools, churches and veterans' halls. They'll go head-to-head in three public debates next month, all of which will be televised then available for online viewing.
Also look for Gov. Chris Christie to become more visible. He's been raising money for Kyrillos and has said he'll be on the stump for his friend in October. Bad blood between Christie and Menendez dates back to the prior U.S. Senate campaign, when federal authorities dropped a subpoena on Menendez (that went nowhere). Christie was the chief federal prosecutor at the time; Democrats charge that the subpoena and the timing were politically motivated, a failed attempt to help Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr.
Both have also taken their campaign directly to voters via televised ads.
Menendez — who was carrying a 5-to-1 money advantage over Kyrillos heading into fall, according to federal election reports — has produced two 30-second TV spots. One focuses on his Union City roots, with versions in English and Spanish. The other on Menendez's fight for the middle class.
Kyrillos was first up with an ad in late August titled "I'm Joe," a 30-second spot introducing him to voters. A second ad followed a week later, with his wife, Susan, talking about Kyrillos as "a different kind of Republican" — one who cares about protecting beaches and the environment and safeguarding women against threats of violence.
"He'll always put us first," she says into the camera, a sharp contrast to another political spouse, the ex-wife of Gov. Jon Corzine, who appeared in a 2005 TV spot on behalf of a Republican gubernatorial candidate to tell voters Corzine disappointed their family and was likely to disappoint voters as well.
Associated Press reporter Samantha Henry in Parsippany contributed to this report.