Walk up to Carol Del Tufo in the parking lot at Pier 1 Imports and ask about her presidential preferences and her voice drops, confidential-like. She is a middle-age teacher and lifelong Democrat, and her usual preoccupations are education and jobs. Except this year.

"I had a neighbor who lost her husband in the attacks," she said. "It was so scary. I've got kids. I don't want another attack." She purses her lips and makes her confession: "Look, I'm voting for Bush. He's very strong, and there's no 'maybe' in his voice."

In this post-9/11 nation, New Jersey is perhaps the purest example of the terrorism differential. Tick off the usual hot-button issues here -- education, the environment, gun control -- and Democrat John F. Kerry leads by 20 percentage points. Then mention terrorism, and watch his lead shrink to single digits in the polls.

Nearly 700 New Jerseyans died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, and state polls show that residents consistently rate terrorism as their most important issue; 22 percent of those polled by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University said they think about terrorism at least once every day.

All of this has left the presidential contest in New Jersey, usually a safe haven for Democrats, too tight for Kerry's comfort. In poll after poll -- the latest released Tuesday by Fairleigh Dickinson University -- the senator from Massachusetts leads President Bush by a margin of between four and eight percentage points. In 2000, Al Gore took the state by a margin of 16 percentage points.

"Republican or Democrat, man or woman, it's all about terrorism," said Patrick Murray, acting director of the Eagleton-Rutgers poll. "We had 9/11, we had anthrax, we've had an office building in Newark targeted for attack, and our schools have showed up on computer discs in Iraq. It's put us off our feet."

That is a point not lost on the GOP. Vice President Cheney came to Burlington County in Republican-rich southern New Jersey this week and slashed into Kerry as naive. If the United States lets up in its pursuit of the enemy, Cheney warned, "The terrorists will escalate their attacks, both at home and overseas, and the likelihood will increase that they will acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against us."

A study released this week by a Cornell University sociologist found that nationally, Bush's approval ratings have jumped every time the federal government has issued a terrorism warning. The boost has even helped his ratings on unrelated issues, such as voter perceptions of his handling of the economy.

This is not to overstate Kerry's predicament in New Jersey. Ask leaders from both parties, and they will say -- on background -- that they expect the state to remain in the Democratic column, albeit narrowly. New Jersey is a prosperous -- it has the third-highest median income in the nation -- and densely packed place. And its "turnpike belt," running north from Camden to Trenton to Woodbridge and Essex County before reaching its terminus in the voter-rich suburbs of Bergen County, has trended steadily Democratic in recent years, particularly on social issues.

The state's labor unions, notably the Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union, apparently feel confident enough that they plan to divert brigades of their troops into Pennsylvania, which has a rich lode of electoral votes and where the polls show a tighter race. "Our rank-and-file folks want to go where they can make a difference," said Jeff Scott, political director for CWA Local 1034, "and their view is that Pennsylvania is still the real battleground state."

And Democrats have not ceded the terrorism issue to the GOP. In recent weeks, vice presidential candidate John Edwards has traveled several times to New Jersey. Last week, the North Carolina senator stood on a pier in Bayonne and pointed to a massive cargo ship docked behind him. He noted that federal inspectors will on average examine just 5 percent of its massive orange and blue containers. Then a half-dozen relatives of Sept. 11 victims stepped forward and endorsed the Democratic ticket, and their anger carried a serrated edge.

"President Bush has politicized 9/11 to a despicable extent," said Annie McRae, whose 23-year-old sister died in the World Trade Center. "He has deliberately evoked our loss for political gain and to scare America."

Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie flew to the state recently to hand over a check -- for $150,000. No one was bowled over. "If this were a real battleground state, you can be sure there'd be another zero at the end of that check," said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics.

Still, along the northern edge of the Jersey shore, in conversation with more than 20 probable voters, it is easy to hear the sort of dissenting voices that give indigestion to Democratic leaders. From Holmdel to Port Monmouth, Long Beach and Middletown, these are well-tended middle-class suburbs. Many families here lost someone -- Middletown recorded more than 70 deaths in the twin towers -- and for this election, at least, that makes all the difference.

Like her friend Del Tufo, Carol Oleszczuk is a longtime Democrat. She says she is a careful news reader, and she knows that inspectors have pored over Iraq without finding a single weapon of mass destruction. And she knows that Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. And she expects the United States to get hit again. And yet, "I feel a lot safer with Saddam out of commission and the terrorists fighting there and not here," she said. "I listen to Kerry, and he speaks very well. But Bush is good at fighting."

Drive now toward the Jersey shore, past small, Colonial-style homes and bungalows with Halloween spider webs and pumpkins at the ready. Pull into the parking lot at Union Beach, and Eileen Vizcaino, a retired teacher, walks along. She plans to vote for Kerry and has no use for Bush. But she recognizes the potency of terrorism as an issue. "People are frightened around here," she said. "Bush has scared the victimized."

Now walk around the corner, and meet Jeff Beacham, a 44-year-old police officer with a gray-flecked walrus mustache and a boxer on a tight leash. Ask who he is voting for, and he points far across the cold blue chop of Raritan Bay to Manhattan's distant towers.

"I stood right here and watched those towers go down," he said. "George Bush realized right then and there that we had to go after the terrorists where they live. I'm with him all the way."

Staff writer Michelle Garcia contributed to this report.

Vice President Cheney, shown at a rally in Jersey City in August, focused on the terrorism issue at a stop in New Jersey this week.Sen. John Edwards, speaking at a campaign rally in Bayonne, N.J., questioned the Bush administration's security efforts to combat terrorism.