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.
Menendez routinely labels Kean a "George Bush Republican" who supports the war in Iraq. Speaking Sunday to a feisty, sign-waving audience in northern New Jersey, Menendez said that if Kean was elected to the Senate, he would immediately fall into line behind Mr. Bush.
A huge cheer erupted from the crowd when Menendez said: "I want you to know that even with the benefit of hindsight, my opponent says he would have voted for the war, and largely supports its present prosecution."
Each candidate has taken a different path to ward off the shower of mud hurled by the opposite camp.
Kean has shied away from talking about Iraq and has steered clear of associating himself with the president. At a recent debate, Kean repeatedly refused to say whether he would have voted to authorize sending U.S. troops to Iraq. (Menendez voted against the resolution authorizing the war, and has called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.)
Menendez has countered the corruption allegations with denials. One TV ad depicts him as a fighter against corruption in his home base of Hudson County. He has also begun to raise questions about Kean's ethics.
The net effect of all the negative campaigning is probably a wash.
"Menendez' ads attacking Kean are probably having the effect of neutralizing the Kean ads against Menendez," said Quinnipiac pollster Richards.
With less than two weeks to go before the election, most analysts believe Kean's withering assault on Menendez' integrity has reached the point of diminishing returns.
A new anti-Menendez TV ad paid for by a conservative group that is not affiliated with the Kean campaign has angered Garden State Italian-Americans. The 30-second spot is a knock-off on the "Sopranos" TV series and shows an actor playing the part of a mobster who bemoans a federal investigation of Menendez. "Bada bing, we're in it — but deep," the actor says.
"Our phones started ringing off the hook," Robert Bianchi, a Sons of Italy official, told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I've never seen a response like what we've seen with this particular ad, from Democrats and Republicans alike."
Analysts believe both men may adopt a more positive tone as they approach the Nov. 7 finish line. While the outcome remains very much in doubt, Menendez appears to have an edge, partly because he has much more money to spend than Kean and partly because he's a Democrat operating on friendly blue state terrain.
Whatever the outcome, it doesn't appear as if Menendez and Kean will have thrown enough mud to enter the New Jersey history books.
"This isn't the dirtiest race we've seen," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University. "In 1996 (Robert) Torricelli ran for Senate against (Richard) Zimmer, which is typically regarded as the dirtiest race in New Jersey history."