The New Jersey X Factor

| Mon Oct. 30, 2006 9:32 AM EST

While polls show Robert Menendez slightly ahead of Tom Kean Jr. in New Jersey's cliff hanger Senate race, political pros fear Menendez is a likely goner. The New Jersey senator was expected to put a clamp on the race last week, but instead, suddenly got hammered by young Kean, who is subjecting the New Jersey democrat to a blistering attack, claiming, among other things, that Menendez is subject to a federal corruption probe.

Kean's offensive is getting sharper. One ad opens with a demand for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, then blasts Menendez for giving Social Security to illegal aliens. The ad ends on a family note, with his children helping their father read a campaign disclosure statement.

People in New Jersey would like to think Kean is a chip off the old block. His father, the former New Jersey governor and head of the 9/11 Commission, sometimes looks like a more or less independent Republican, who has departed from the party line to criticize the Bush administration for its failure to carry forward the reforms proposed by his commission. But they forget that the elder Kean acted like a Bush yo-yo during the probe, letting the President call the shots on how he was to be interviewed and what documents could and could not be made public. Still, the Jersey voters seem to love the man.

Sunday editions of the Bergen Record, a key New Jersey daily, show Menendez leading Kean 48 to 42. Strangely, though, New Jersey voters seem to prefer Kean to Menendez. According to the Record's poll, "voters found Kean more trustworthy by a 49-36 percent ratio, and they personally like him more than Menendez, 48-33 percent. But of those voters who consider Kean more trustworthy, 35 percent are voting for Menendez because they feel other factors, such as the war in Iraq and putting Democrats back in control of Congress, are more important."

In this type of climate, where Kean is actually perceived as the better candidate, the tide could turn quickly.