Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here. Today's featured district is:
New Jersey 3rd: Rep. John Adler (D) is seeking a second term
Primary: June 8, 2010
Location: South-central New Jersey
Days until Election Day: 77
(CNN) – Republicans recruited a true franchise player to reclaim their title in the New Jersey 3rd Congressional District.
Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan, a political newcomer, is starting strong to beat incumbent John Adler. The historically Republican seat, formerly held by Jim Saxton for over 20 years, is perhaps the party's best chance of adding to their New Jersey lineup.
But Adler, the freshman Democrat, is preparing to play a strong defense in order to keep his seat. Long recognized as a "Frontline Democrat" by the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to spotlight vulnerable candidates and assist them with fund-raising, Adler had almost $2 million cash on hand by the end of June – more than quadruple Runyan's amount.
The huge cash advantage hasn't translated into a significant advantage in the polls. A recent Rutgers University poll put Adler ahead of Runyan 31 to 25 percent, with a 4.8 percent margin of error and 23 percent undecided.
The National Republican Campaign Committee did not miss the potential for a win here. Last week, the committee designated Runyan as a "Young Gun", an important status that makes him eligible for strategic and financial campaign assistance from the organization and a sign that both sides are now taking this race seriously.
Adler and Runyan may not have the field to themselves. Third party candidate Peter DeStefano recently jumped into the race, positioning himself as a Tea Party candidate, although he has no affiliation to any official Tea Party organization. Runyan accused Democrats of planting DeStefano in the race to split the Republican vote, and official Tea Party organizations in South Jersey have publicly disavowed DeStefano's campaign. Adler denies the accusations, though a former campaign staffer from a family that strongly supports the Democrat signed the petition that put DeStefano on the ballot. In the same Rutgers poll, only four percent of responders indicated a preference for DeStefano.
The district voted for Barack Obama with 52 percent of the vote, but backed George W. Bush's second term with 51 percent, so neither side can afford to ignore a third party candidate. Geographically, the district has plenty of regions in which each candidate will do well. It stretches from parts of conservative Ocean County, through moderate Burlington County, and a small part of Camden County that includes the Democratic stronghold of Cherry Hill. Expect to see them campaigning hard all over the state's second largest district.
Politically, Adler and Runyan are considered moderates in their party. Adler is part of the pro-growth "New Democrat Coalition" and was one of 34 Democrats to vote against health care reform. Runyan supports limited abortions and civil unions. Both list the environment as an important issue, since the district encompasses parts of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens.
In the harsh arena of New Jersey politics, this campaign is shaping up to be the most closely watched in the state. With no statewide races this November, each candidate is left to stand on his own, which might be helpful for the major-party candidates, since President Obama and Governor Christie both have approval ratings below 50 percent.
So, who will end up in a Gatorade shower? It's too early to tell, but this is likely to come down to the wire.