RENE MONTAGNE, host:
Fifteen Senate Democrats are running for reelection this year. All are ahead in the polls, except one. The only Republican challenger who's running ahead of a Democratic incumbent is in New Jersey. His name: Tom Kean Jr. His secret: staying away from the hot-button national issues and keeping the debate state and local.
NPR's Guy Raz spent today with Kean and the campaign, and sent this report.
GUY RAZ: For the third time this afternoon, Tom Kean Jr. rubs disinfectant gel into his hands. By the end of the day thousands of hands will have been shaken. That's lots of germs and Tom Kean Jr. can't risk illness. There are 58 days left until Election Day and the campaign is on a roll.
Mr. TOM KEAN JR. (Senate Candidate, Republican, New Jersey): We're ahead in the polls. We're five points up in the most recent poll.
RAZ: Statistically insignificant right now, but nothing to scoff at. After all, Tom Kean Jr. is the challenger facing incumbent Senator Robert Menendez.
Now, to make matters more complicated, Kean's a Republican in a state where the word Republican has become something of a political liability. So Tom Kean Jr. wants New Jersey voters to know that...
Mr. KEAN: I'm gonna be an independent reformer who's gonna go down to Washington, D.C. and stand up for the needs and the concerns of the people of the state of New Jersey.
RAZ: And that...
Mr. KEAN: This administration has made horrendous mistakes in the war in Iraq. And it starts by getting new leadership at the Department of Defense.
RAZ: Meaning he wants Donald Rumsfeld fired. And that when elected he'll push policies...
Mr. KEAN: That will ensure that our air is cleaner, water is cleaner, the land is cleaner. That will focus on those policies that make this state more affordable. That will focus on foreign policy that's consistent...
RAZ: And as he'll repeat several times over the course of the day.
Mr. KEAN: I've been a volunteer firefighter, an EMT...
RAZ: All this Tom Kean Jr. wants the blue state voters of New Jersey to know. What he doesn't much want to talk about is being a Republican. He likes to use reformer and independent.
Mr. KEAN: The people of New Jersey want an independent reformer. They don't like the status quo.
RAZ: The word Republican doesn't appear in his literature. It's nowhere to be found in his commercials. When Vice President Cheney held a fundraiser for Kean last month, the candidate got stuck in traffic and was never photographed with Mr. Cheney.
About the only few Republicans Tom Kean Jr. wants to be associated with this year are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain who makes a guest appearance in one of the candidates campaign ads.
(Soundbite of TV campaign ad)
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This is a person who has experience and can bring it right with him immediately starting next January.
Mr. KEAN: Hi, how are you? (Unintelligible) my name's Tom Kean, I'm running for U.S. Senate this year.
Unidentified Woman #1: Good luck to you.
Mr. KEAN: With your help.
RAZ: Kean's been around politics his whole life. His father, Tom Kean Sr. served two terms in the 1980s as this state's wildly popular governor. His grandfather was a congressman. And Kean's pedigree reaches back to the Declaration of Independence. There's even a university in the state named after the Kean family.
Herb Jackson, a veteran New Jersey reporter with the Record, says the family name is synonymous with Old Money.
Mr. HERB JACKSON (Reporter, The Record): Kean is a very well known name. They're a very wealthy family. They've been in government since the Colonial Congress. Tom Kean's great grandfather's great grandfather was in the Continental Congress.
RAZ: That lends Kean gravitas, which as the tender age of 37 is something he can use. On the campaign trail, old ladies swoon over his boyish looks.
Unidentified Woman #2: You're so young -- he's a young boy.
RAZ: But the young boy is far better known than the incumbent Senator Menendez, who was appointed to the Senate by his predecessor Jon Corzine who's now the Governor of New Jersey.
There are two candidates running for U.S. Senate in the state, do you know who they are?
Unidentified Woman #3: Kean -- I forget who the other one is.
Unidentified Woman #4: Can't think of that one's name, now.
RAZ: Want me to give you a hint?
Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah, go ahead.
Unidentified Woman #3: Oh Menendez. Yeah.
RAZ: What do you know about Tom Kean?
Unidentified Woman #3: Other than his father was the governor, not much at all.
Unidentified Woman #4: No.
RAZ: And in a sense, Kean is playing that up. The blue-blood Brahman likes to make a display of contempt when talking about Washington, D.C.
Mr. KEAN: We've worked hard to craft a campaign that's about improving the lives of the people of New Jersey. It starts with breaking apart the broken system in Washington, D.C.
RAZ: It's a kind of preprogrammed populism that haltingly flows from his lips. It's on message, without spontaneity, a tone perhaps poll-tested by media handlers, people who've schooled the young Tom Kean, Jr. in the art of politicking.
But when he's at ease with the microphone away from his line of sight, his manner can be earnestly charming, if sometimes a bit awkward.
Mr. KEAN: I running for United States Senate this year.
Unidentified Woman #5: Uh-huh.
Mr. KEAN: My name is Tom Kean. I just wanted to say a quick hello. Appreciate your consideration.
Unidentified Woman #5: We don't speak English.
RAZ: In a year when pollsters are telling us that Republicans are in trouble, Tom Kean, Jr. looks like his party's best shot for turning a blue seat red. His strategy is simple: avoid national issues, avoid getting tied up with the Bush administration, and above all, don't mention the war.
Guy Raz, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.