Sen. John McCain likes to tell a joke about New Jersey.
"I don't know if you ever heard the one about two inmates in state prison, and they're in the chow line," the senator says. "One of them says to the other one, 'The food was a lot better in here when you were governor.' "
New Jersey has been the butt of a blizzard of bad jokes, but it's highly unusual to see a politician insult the state where he's trolling for votes. In this case, however, McCain's little diss produced nothing but appreciative laughter from a group of GOP donors in Edison who had ponied up $250 apiece for the party's U.S. Senate candidate, Tom Kean Jr.
That's because Kean, a state senator, has made corruption the centerpiece of his campaign against Sen. Bob Menendez. Though it is unclear whether the allegation is true, Kean has endlessly proclaimed Menendez to be under "federal criminal investigation."
If you haven't seen any of Kean's TV ads that suggest Menendez is corrupt, the candidate will happily tell you himself.
"We need to clean up corruption at every level of government. I am tired of seeing politicians of both parties run out of county courthouses with raincoats over their heads," Kean says. "I am tired of our state and our leaders being made fun of on Jay Leno and David Letterman."
If nothing else, Kean has stayed on message and scrupulously obeyed two of the GOP's cardinal commandments for this midterm election: Thou shalt go negative and thou shalt dwell in the land of local issues.
So far, it's worked. Most major polls show the race to be very close in a blue state the Democrats must hold in order to have any reasonable chance of winning the Senate.
A new CBS News/New York Times poll shows the candidates at a dead heat, with Menendez leading Kean by one percentage point, with a three percent margin of error.
Democrats are worried. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently tossed $2 million into the race to buy more TV ads attacking Kean. Both parties have rushed in big names like McCain and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry to boost their candidates.
The Kean assault on Menendez' integrity is resonating with voters for several reasons. New Jersey has a long and storied history of public corruption. According to The Economist, nearly 200 Garden State public officials have been indicted in the past five years.
Menendez, 52, is a veteran Democratic congressman and the product of the machine politics of Hudson County, which has its own gamy history of corruption.
Kean claims Menendez is under federal criminal investigation for profiting from the leasing of office space to a nonprofit group that received federal funding. The U.S. Attorney's office won't confirm or deny the existence of such a probe.
"Tom (Kean) throws out allegations like other people throw out their garbage," Menendez complained at a recent debate. "I'm under no federal criminal investigation."
Kean has another important asset in the race — his name. The Kean family has a long, distinguished history of public service in New Jersey. Kean is the son of Tom Kean Sr., the revered former governor and the chairman of the 9/11 Commission. So-called "legacy" candidates often benefit from their relationship with a prestigious father, mother, husband or wife. Kean is no different.
Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards notes that in a September survey, 18 percent of likely New Jersey voters said they supported Kean because they liked his father. (That number has decreased recently, but still stands near 10 percent.)
Kean, 38, hasn't exactly clawed his way to the top. He was appointed to a seat in the state Assembly and later to a seat in the state Senate. But his surprisingly tenacious campaign against Menendez has surprised observers in both parties.
For his part, Menendez is giving as good as he gets. He has taken the campaign national with the same single-minded passion Kean has brought to bear on the local issue of public corruption.