As oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico from a blown-out well, candidates in New Jersey's most competitive congressional race are making offshore drilling an issue in the district that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Delaware River.

Freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler, like most of the state's politicians, is against drilling off New Jersey's shore. But Republican nominee Jon Runyan, a former Eagles tackle, says he's in favor of drilling off the state's coast, as long as it can be done safely and New Jersey's residents pass a ballot question supporting it.

Asked if he would support such a referendum, Adler said, "I don't want to take any steps that would lead us in any way to offshore drilling."

Both call for ending the nation's dependence on foreign oil, support drilling in the gulf, and call for higher safety standards and vigilant enforcement.

Their deepest disagreement on the issue is over whether wells should be drilled off the Jersey coast, and that already has become part of their campaign in the Third Congressional District.

Minutes after Runyan won the June 8 GOP primary, Adler was on NJN public television from Washington saying he was "very, very surprised" that Runyan supported drilling off the Jersey coast. Runyan made that known in early April, days before the April 20 Horizon Deepwater explosion, which killed 11 workers and caused the eventual collapse of BP's offshore rig.

Since the disaster, Runyan said he still favors drilling off New Jersey's coast.

"We have to sit down and get our regulations straight and make sure they are applied, and once that's done, I don't have a problem with it," he said.

Most of the state's political leaders, including Republican Gov. Christie, oppose drilling here.

Adler said he also opposes drilling off the nearby Virginia coast because a rig disaster there could send oil to New Jersey's beaches, crippling the tourism business. But, he said, "I don't want to dictate to Virginia."

His standard, like Runyan's, is whether a state wants offshore drilling.

"Clearly, the gulf area still wants to continue drilling, and it wants the Minerals Management Service to do its job and wants oil companies to be responsible not to cut corners the way BP clearly did," Adler said. "This region clearly doesn't want it."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.