Eugene Bradley does not swing. At 50, Bradley, an operations manager for Synagro, a waste management company, has been devoted to the Democratic Party for as long as he has voted.
But these days, when Bradley thinks of the November elections, he almost always thinks of voting against President Bush, rather than for Sen. John F. Kerry. He can let loose a torrent of opinions about the president -- the war in Iraq is an especially favorite target -- but when it comes to talking up the Massachusetts Democrat who would replace him, well . . .
He would like to like Kerry. He would like to sing his praises. He would like to feel -- something -- about him. "I am not that up on him," Bradley said. "I don't feel a connection with him. He's basically another politician. In my heart of hearts, I think they could have dug up somebody better."
The results of a Quinnipiac University poll and random interviews in several Democratic strongholds in New Jersey suggest that plenty of voters, at least in this state, feel the same way. In what is arguably the most Democratic state in the nation -- where Vice President Al Gore beat Bush in 2000 by 16 points without breaking a sweat -- Kerry leads Bush in the New Jersey Quinnipiac poll by just 3 percentage points, 46 percent to 43 percent (with Ralph Nader at 5 percent), with a margin of error of 2.9 percent. That means a statistical dead heat in a state where Democrats control the state executive and legislature, U.S. Senate seats and most congressional district seats.
This comes at a time when the latest polls, including the Quinnipiac poll, which surveyed 1,122 New Jersey registered voters May 10 to 16, show the president's approval ratings have dropped to the lowest of his tenure. Significantly, unaffiliated or independent voters, who traditionally vote in much higher numbers for Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey, split 46 percent to 45 percent for Bush, or 41 percent to 41 percent in a three-way race with Nader, who polled at 13 percent.
"The poll suggests that Kerry is not grabbing the independent voters the way Democrats usually do," said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Democratic Party officials here and nationally dismissed the poll as a fluke. They pointed to the fundraising records that Kerry is breaking, to the polls that keep looking better for him as they get worse for Bush, and to the attention that Kerry will receive when the news focuses more on the campaign. One poll in New Jersey, they added, will not stand up when the state's residents actually start paying attention to the race. (Nearly half the voters polled, 47 percent, said they are not paying much heed yet.) "If the Republicans want to spend $1 million in the bluest state in the country, then bring it on," said Adam Green, spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, pointing out that Kerry's poll numbers have risen in the past four Quinnipiac polls.
Bertin Lefkovic, the former field director for Howard Dean's campaign in New Jersey, said it is much too soon to draw any conclusions from the poll. Voters are not tuned into the election yet in New Jersey, he said, because the state primary is irrelevant -- it is on June 8 -- and because New Jersey lacks its own broadcast television news outlets, having to rely on either New York or Philadelphia stations for coverage.
But privately, party Democrats acknowledged that if Kerry has some work to do in capturing the hearts, if not minds, of the base, then he must really hustle to win over the crucial swing voters who will probably decide the election.
Interviews in northern New Jersey commuter towns chock-full of Democrats and unaffiliated voters -- Jersey City, Hoboken, Edgewater and East Rutherford -- produced a mixed bag. Voters were critical not only of Bush's performance, but also of what they perceived as Kerry's lack of performance.
"He's like a shadow figure," said Omar Milosevich, a retired pressman from Hoboken. "Even when he's there, he's not there."
Kerry did have many loyalists. For faithful Democrats eager to see Bush out of office, the notion that voters might not cast ballots for Kerry because he does not charm them seemed preposterous.
"I've heard that he's neck and neck in Jersey," said Mario Costa, 47, who runs the White Mana Diner and Ringside Lounge in Jersey City. "I think it's nuts. You have to go with Kerry. Everybody in the world hates us because of Bush. We need a change."
Jennifer Lucci, 24, of Hoboken, was even more adamant. "I can't even talk to anyone who is for Bush," said Lucci, a salesperson at a designer boutique. "Luckily, no one I know is for him."
But members of the Strong and Shapely Gym in East Rutherford who were interviewed split between Bush and Kerry. Democrats sided with the Democrat, Republicans with the Republican, and independents, by 3 to 2, preferred Bush.
Ralph Cardinale, 53, a building inspector from Clifton who considers himself an independent, was one of those. "I think he's adequate as a president," Cardinale said of Bush. "Whereas Democrats seem to attack the other candidate without coming up with their own ideas. What I don't like about Kerry is he seems to flip-flop a lot," echoing the constant refrain of the Bush campaign.
Leslie Korkgy-Valenti, 31, a history teacher from Hasbrouck Heights thought so, too. "I feel that after September 11th, Bush is the right person to lead," she said.
George Coates, on the other hand, is torn. "I think Kerry licks his finger and sticks it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing," said Coates, 65, a retired stockbroker from Clifton. He added that although he voted for Bush in 2000, "he's someone who wore out his welcome for me faster than Clinton did. I can't stand listening to him. I can't stand watching him."
Does that mean he has decided on Kerry?
"No," he said, with a shudder. "I don't like Kerry, either."