ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- New Jersey -- one of the Democratic Party's most reliable states in national elections -- isn't lining up behind Sen. John Kerry quite the way he and the state's powerful union bosses would like.
President Bush lost New Jersey to former Vice President Al Gore by 15 percentage points, a landslide by the standards of the cliff-hanger 2000 election.
But several polls this year show the state's voters -- largely New York City commuters and blue-collar workers -- are about evenly split between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, with one poll showing Mr. Bush in the lead.
Kerry's New Jersey problem has some Democrats puzzled and more than a little concerned. Speculation about the cause ranges from the state's front-row seat for the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to Mr. Kerry's monied lifestyle and patrician demeanor.
"It's hard," said William T. Mullen, president of New Jersey's building trades union and a fervid Bush detractor. "Bush wraps himself in the flag from 9/11 and the war. He knows how to play that to his advantage."
Mr. Mullen considered the poll numbers for a moment and added: "Working people should not even consider voting for Bush. Oh, that would be so terrible."
The most recent poll of New Jersey voters, conducted earlier this month by American Research Group, had Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush tied at 46 percent, with independent Ralph Nader scoring 2 percent of the vote.
A poll conducted earlier in the spring showed Mr. Bush beating Mr. Kerry by four percentage points -- more than the margin of error -- if Mr. Nader remains in the race.
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a Republican, said he's not surprised the state has become competitive.
"New Jersians have a special connection to this president," he said in a conference call set up by the Republican National Committee. "As a 9/11 state, a lot of people lost their lives who lived here; family members have people they lost. It hit New Jersey in a very personal and deep way."
Also, Mr. Kyrillos said, the state's economy -- especially job growth -- is "clearly on the upswing."
So Mr. Kerry came here this week to brush up his bona fides as a friend of the working class as well as a great warrior against terrorism.
He told a crowd yesterday that he likes to read People magazine. He walked along the garish boardwalk between the beach and the casinos to shake hands with elderly midweek gamblers. And he played back-up guitar for Jon Bon Jovi, the long-haired, acid-wash rocker who is dearly loved here in his home state.
A fund-raiser at Mr. Bon Jovi's home in Middletown on Monday night attracted more than 300 guests and more than $1 million, according to Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. Among those in attendance was James Gandolfini, who plays a conflicted Jersey mobster in the HBO hit "The Sopranos."
Speaking to donors gathered around Mr. Bon Jovi's palatial pool, Mr. Kerry seemed to acknowledge some of the skepticism about him within his party.
"I pick up the papers some days," he said. "I read people say, 'Well, what's the campaign about? What's Kerry running for? What's the guy for?'"
He went on to say that he is running to make health care "right for all Americans," create more jobs and improve the stature of the United States abroad.
Mr. Mullen -- who did not attend the Bon Jovi fund-raiser -- likes this message and said the country needs someone "to represent the working class, who can relate to people with families trying to make a living."
Asked whether Mr. Kerry's patrician -- some say French -- face and wife worth an estimated $550 million hurts his ability to relate to the working class, Mr. Mullen replied, "Yeah, but he's our rich French guy and we got to stick with him."