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Runyan's Run

New Jersey's Third Congressional District is officially up for grabs.

9:00 AM, Oct 27, 2010 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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The last time I was at the Elks Lodge of Toms River, NJ, was during a comic book convention 25 years ago. (It's where I bought Amazing Spider-Man #129, in which the Punisher makes his first appearance. I'm told it's actually worth something today.) Last Sunday night I found myself back at the lodge—which pretty much looks the same—but this time to see Republican candidate (and former Eagles offensive lineman) Jon Runyan as well as the governor himself, Chris Christie. With 50 to 60 protesters outside and a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 supporters inside, the atmosphere was intense.

Runyan's Run

"You ever see anything like this?" Frank Luna asks me. The 27-year-old gum-chewing political operator with a buzz cut has a tense look in his eyes. Even before the doors were officially opened at 7:15, he says, the seats were all filled. Luna, who goes "wherever the governor wants me to go," scans the room, making sure the governor's visit comes off without a hitch—such as an infiltrating heckler. "I hope no one throws his shoe at him," said Virginia, a local senior citizen.

It's doubtful these protesters would do such a thing. But they would like to get inside—one of the more vocal demonstrators asks, "Isn't there even one member of the Elks club here? Can't we just go in?" They can't since the event required registration. And so they stand at the curb, waiting for Christie to pull in, chanting slogans to the attendees and telling them to vote for first-term Democratic incumbent John Adler. I spoke to a few who insist they are not all part of some coordinated effort by the New Jersey Education Association, that they are all simply concerned citizens, and that they all aren't teachers. But judging by the signs they were holding up, it's fair to say a majority of them probably were. "Adler Understands Education" reads one. "No Bully Zone" says another. "Educate Your Kids" appears on yet another poster. The protesters were also eager to tie the governor to Michael Ritacco, an unsavory but prominent member of the community—the Toms River regional school superintendent is facing corruption charges. "Ritacco held a fundraiser for Christie before he became governor," one educator explained. "Why wasn't he investigated when Christie was the U.S. attorney?" demanded another.

But inside the mood was ebullient. Sure these supporters want to elect Jon Runyan—Ocean County is a traditional Republican stronghold—but they are also here to see the governor, whose popularity has risen in a state that's voted for Democrats in presidential elections since 1992. This county, in particular, has a strong affection for Christie—as a candidate, Christie had hoped Ocean County could deliver 50,000 votes his way. It gave him 71,000 votes.

Almost suddenly, the Republican candidate for the 3rd Congressional District arrives. Frankly he's hard to miss. Runyan stands at about 6-foot-7 and weighs at least 300 pounds. And though he no longer plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, Runyan is still a solid mass. He looks down on everyone in the room while shaking hands and smiling. But he doesn't say much and doesn't come across as an expressive, share-your-feelings kind of guy. He's more like the strong, silent type.

In fact, Runyan seems to have taken a page from Candidate Christie's playbook, as noted by Fred Barnes: "Christie was elected governor of New Jersey last year after giving voters no more than a glimpse of his plans for the state. The reason was simple. Had he laid out his sweeping agenda of spending and tax cuts, he’d have given Democrats an inviting target. They surely would have tried to scare voters away from Christie, and it might have worked. Instead he concentrated on Democratic governor Jon Corzine as the main issue—and won."

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