N.J. and Tom Kean Jr.: Perfect Together?

KENILWORTH, N.J.—“Bob Menendez is under federal criminal investigation,” Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. tells a screaming crowd in this hushed, Union County suburb. “How do we know he’s under federal criminal investigation? Well, let’s see: He admitted it on national TV with George Stephanopoulos, when he said he would welcome the investigation. … Then we find out through reporters, not through him, that he has hired not one, but two, criminal defense attorneys to contact the U.S. Attorney’s office on his behalf. Folks, it sounds to me like he’s under federal criminal investigation!”

The 200 or so GOP stalwarts roar their approval. “Go, Tom, Go!” they chant in rhythm.

Kean, the 38-year-old son of former governor and 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean, speaks at a veterans’ center here on the Sunday evening before the November 2006 midterm elections. Fittingly, he stands before a painting that depicts the Feb. 23, 1945, U.S flagraising on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi (depicted in the fine film, “Flags of Our Fathers”). Kean looks relaxed in a blue blazer, tan khakis, and an open, white shirt. He shares the stage with a woman dressed in a vivid red jacket, Union County Freeholder candidate Pat Quattrocchi. That’s Italian for “four eyes.”

Attendees are Kean loyalists and big foes of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, 52. The incumbent is a former congressman appointed to fill the Democratic Senate seat that Jon Corzine vacated when he became the Garden State’s governor in January.

“I’m glad that Kean is focusing on the fact that Bob Menendez voted to increase my sales tax,” says attorney John Henry Barr, 36. Menendez, he continues, “voted to increase my income tax, and I simply don’t want to elect someone who continues to vote to raise our taxes.”

“I think Bob Menendez is weak on homeland security,” says Lauren Pass, a 26-year-old marketing professional. “I’m not going to feel safe living in a state so close to New York City, so close to all of these refineries and these targets that would be perfect for terrorists to attack. I want somebody like Tom Kean who I know is going to protect me and my family, as far as homeland security is concerned.”

Kean, who looks about eight years younger than his actual age, shakes hands and poses for pictures with a huge smile on his face. Beside the stage, a Dixieland band belts out the U.S. Navy anthem, “Anchors Aweigh.” The tuba, banjo, and trombone players all wear white, long-sleeved shirts brightened with red, white, and blue stars-and-stripes vests.

“I think that Bob Menendez is connected with the good-ol-boy New Jersey network,” says a local realtor named Carmen Imgrund. (That’s German for “in the ground”). “If he’s not corrupt, he’s on the fringes of it. However, I will give him a little bit of a bye on that, because I don’t think you can be in politics in New Jersey without it, unfortunately.”

Suspicions swirl that Menendez has used his influence to win contracts and other favors for himself and his supporters. However, he has yet to be charged with impropriety.

At least one Republican here is ho-hum about his party’s nominee.

“It’s now painfully clear that Kean is a RINO in the mold of Lincoln Chafee,” says Nathan Brinkman, 30, a pharmaceutical sales representative and co-founder of the Hoboken Republican Club. “It seems that he reads straight from Democratic talking points. Whenever a Republican is under fire in the media, you always can count on Kean to pile on. He called for the president to fire Rumsfeld. In the midst of the Mark Foley scandal, he called on Speaker Dennis Hastert to resign. And, most recently, he picked a fight with Rush Limbaugh over embryonic stem-cell research.”

Brinkman adds: “For most of us, it comes down to the lesser of two evils. Holding our noses might not be enough. We might have to have our olfactory nerves removed.”

The most recent poll, from Quinnipiac University, shows Menendez favored by 48% of respondents with 43% backing Kean. Menendez’s edge is just outside the 3.3% error margin. Quinnipiac contacted 887 likely voters between October 23-29.

Whatever the polls say, Kean soldiers on.

Asked if there is a difference between him and his opponent on terrorism, Kean tells me: “My opponent voted against the Patriot Act, he voted against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. So I believe clearly there’s a difference.”

Then, accompanied only by a staffer who grabs the wheel, Tom Kean Jr. jumps into a gunmetal-gray Ford Escape hybrid SUV and rides off into the night.