WASHINGTON – Is an upset brewing in South Jersey?

A new poll shows Democrat Bill Hughes Jr., written off by most pundits and national election forecasters, within striking distance of Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a 10-term incumbent.

The survey, commissioned by Stockton College and released Thursday, found LoBiondo with a 6 point lead among likely voters: 44 percent to 38 percent in the second Congressional district, which is based in Atlantic County and includes parts of eight South Jersey counties. When the poll included voters who are leaning to one candidate, LoBiondo leads 47 to 42.

The results are striking because national Democrats, who initially talked up Hughes' chances, have largely focused elsewhere in recent months, spending heavily to help another South Jersey candidate, Aimee Belgard.

As I reported a story earlier this week on Belgard's race against Republican Tom MacArthur in the Burlington and Ocean-based third district, several South Jersey Democrats wondered, unprompted, why the Washington-based Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wasn't paying more attention to Hughes, saying his race may be more within reach than Belgard's.

A key difference: Belgard is competing for an open seat, while Hughes is trying to oust an incumbent.

But Hughes' campaign called the poll numbers the most encouraging for a Democrat running against LoBiondo in over 20 years. The challenger, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, has blasted LoBiondo for the Atlantic City region's struggling economy.

"Voters know Congressman LoBiondo has changed over his 20 years in Congress and has forgotten what matters most to people right here at home," Hughes said in a news release. "He's been walking in lockstep with partisan leaders in a broken and irresponsible Congress for too long and has lost the courage it takes to do what's right for us."

LoBiondo's camp questioned the poll's methods - Republicans said it left out four lesser-known candidates -- and blasted Hughes for "relentless negative attacks and false statements."

"Congressman LoBiondo has always run a strong race and this year is no different. Our full media campaign has just begun and we are confident of victory on November 4th," said LoBiondo spokesman Jason Galanes.

LoBiondo has a big cash advantage – his campaign had $1.6 million to Hughes' $396,000 as of the latest reports – and he has racked up labor endorsements that are typically part of a winning Democratic coalition.

The overall political environment this year has tilted toward Republicans, but the district is one that President Obama won two years ago and in which registered Democrats slightly outnumber registered Republicans.

The poll of 604 likely voters was done by Survey Technology & Research Center. Its margin of error is 4 percentage points.

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