Donald Lambro

He is Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the minority whip in the New Jersey Senate and son of the state's popular former governor, Tom Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission. Recent polls by John Zogby and The Wall Street Journal are showing surprisingly strong support for him at this juncture in the '06 cycle -- not a good sign for Democrats.

Among the House Democrats planning to get into the race, Zogby polls show Kean leading Rep. Rob Andrews by a hefty 46 percent to 36 percent and Rep. Bob Menendez by 43 percent to 34 percent. Another Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., is also looking at the race.

Besides Kean's high family-name recognition, campaign analysts and party pros think he will also be helped by what promises to be a crowded and divisive Democratic primary.

"Although the Garden State has not been very hospitable to Republican nominees for federal office, a fractured Democratic party and a strong GOP nominee could make the Senate race worth watching," says election tracker Stuart Rothenberg.

Republican campaign officials here were eyeing this Senate race even before the November gubernatorial election, expecting that Corzine would win and his seat would be up for grabs. "As much as we wanted to win the governorship, part of us hoped Corzine would win so the seat would open up, because we have a good shot at getting it," a Republican Party campaign official told me.

North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign chairwoman, is wasting no time boosting Kean's candidacy. She is scheduled to speak at a Kean state fund-raiser on Dec. 6 and promises to pull out all the stops at the NRSC to get him elected.

"We want to make an early statement. New Jersey is a symbol of how Republicans are on the offense in the blue states," said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick.

But Pennsylvania and New Jersey aren't the only blue states where the GOP's future is looking brighter.

Senate Republican prospects are growing stronger in Minnesota and Maryland, too, where Democratic incumbents are not seeking re-election -- further evidence that the GOP name brand is still a marketable commodity, no matter what the polls are saying in Washington.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.