NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J.—The audience had listened politely. But people began to applaud loudly as Sen. Robert Menendez decried the war in Iraq.
"If I could not vote to send my son or daughter to war, I would not vote to send anyone else's son or daughter to war," the New Jersey Democrat said as the congregation at Shiloh Baptist Church—"A Place of Peace," as it bills itself—nodded in agreement.
Menendez—the son of Cuban immigrants and a sitting senator since his appointment to the post last January—is staking his campaign to keep his Senate seat on staunch opposition to the war, lacing his speeches with the body count and price tag of the conflict.
It's a strategy that Democrats hope to use to oust Republican incumbents. And it strikes a chord in this heavily Democratic state, where polls suggest that the war is increasingly unpopular. But Menendez's race—crucial to Democratic efforts to capture the Senate—has turned into an unexpectedly close and increasingly contentious contest, to the puzzlement of strategists, who wonder whether his ethnicity is a factor.
"New Jersey is behaving very, very oddly," noted Charles Cook, a nonpartisan handicapper who publishes the Cook Political Report. The seat, he said, may be the only Democratic Senate seat in jeopardy.
A former congressman, Menendez voted against the war in Iraq, and he's outdone his opponent 3-to-1 in fundraising. Still, he finds himself neck and neck with Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr., a state senator with a brief record but an outsized name.
Kean's father is former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who chaired the Sept. 11 commission and is so revered that beachgoers along the Jersey shore over the Labor Day weekend needed to know only the familial ties to pledge support to his son.
"If you're half the person your father was, you've got my vote," Rosemary Sullivan, 67, a Fairfield retiree, called after the younger Kean as he worked the crowd in Lavallette.
Some question whether Menendez's Hispanic roots—and surname—are playing a role in dampening the polls.
"Sad to say, but I do think the Latino surname may be hurting him on the margins," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at New Jersey's Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. "And there's a lot of skepticism about the Hudson County ties."
The campaign in many ways has revolved around Hudson County, a gritty collection of cities hard by the New York skyline that for years has welcomed newly arrived immigrants—and earned a reputation for political corruption. Menendez is a former mayor of Union City, the second-largest city in Hudson County and the second-largest Cuban-American stronghold in the United States, after Miami.
Kean, who lives in suburban Westfield, denounces Menendez as a pol who muscled his way up the county ranks, calling him in an interview "nothing but a partisan Hudson County Democratic party boss." He's seized on newspaper accounts that Menendez collected $300,000 in rent from a nonprofit agency for which he helped land federal money, accusing him of a conflict of interest.
Menendez, charging that Kean is practicing the "politics of personal destruction," says the House Ethics Committee cleared the arrangement.
Menendez says his campaign is "looking carefully" at statements that Kean and other Republicans have made, suggesting that they're thinly veiled attempts to denigrate the senator's Hispanic roots. New Jersey has never elected a Hispanic or black candidate statewide.
Menendez's campaign hopes for a comfortable vote cushion out of Hudson County, telling voters there that the Kean campaign is disparaging the county, which is increasingly Hispanic.
"I was one of three Hispanics in my elementary school. My brother was the second," Union City Mayor Albio Sires said. "Now the county is overwhelmingly Hispanic. It's really angering people that they're seeming to say people from Hudson County are no good."
Kean, who in campaign speeches accuses Menendez of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants by backing a Senate immigration bill, says he's not criticizing Hudson County, simply looking "to protect the hardworking people of Hudson County from the Democratic machine that is hurting New Jersey."
Menendez was appointed to the Senate to fill the term of Jon Corzine, who was elected governor.
His elevation to the Senate opens the way for the election of another Cuban-American congressman: Sires, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1962 at age 11.
Should Sires, a Democrat, win his race for Menendez's former House seat—and there are no signs that he won't—he'd be the fourth congressman with Cuban ties, along with Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Florida Republicans.
"We'll be over-represented population-wise," rejoiced Cuban-American lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone, referring to the U.S. Cuban population, which numbers fewer than 2 million. "And that's just fine with us. We hope to be even more over-represented."
To that end, Claver-Carone's group, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, has maxed out contributions to Menendez, arguing that the community would benefit from a Republican Cuban-American senator, Mel Martinez of Florida, and a Democrat, Menendez.
Cuba, though, hasn't figured in the New Jersey race. Menendez said it rarely came up on the trail. "This is not Miami," he noted with a broad grin. Indeed, most of New Jersey's Cuban-Americans are loyal Democrats, Sires said.
Kean suggested that Cuba probably is the only area on which the two candidates agree. He said he had an aunt who'd fled Cuba, and he pledges he'd be staunchly pro-embargo.
The national parties are watching the race carefully. Democrats expect to hold the seat, central to their hope of taking control of the Senate.
But should the numbers continue to look rosy for Kean, national Republicans could throw some money his way, strategists suggest, though other states had looked more viable.
That New Jersey could be in play is worrying Democrats.
"The war could do it for him," said Ed Hughes, 72, a diehard Democrat who came to hear Menendez at a campaign event to quell doubts created by the ethics charges. "But they're going to try to take those machine ties and strangle him."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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