The same day a new poll found him trailing badly in the race for governor, Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli is trying to tap into anger and angst over Phil Murphy's school mask mandate.

Ciattarelli appeared at a rally outside the Toms River Board of Education where parents were protesting forced masking of their kids when classes resume next month. His presence was cheered by those in attendance.

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Earlier this month, Ciattarelli issued a statement slamming Murphy's mandate, calling it "bewildering," and saying, "whether a child wears a mask should be decided by parents, not government."

Despite anti-maskers pledging their votes to the GOP candidate, Ciattarelli has had a difficult time gaining any traction in the gubernatorial contest. The latest Monmouth University Poll shows him trailing by as many as 16 percentage points.

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The COVID crisis is pegged as the top issue facing New Jersey in that same survey, and Phil Murphy continues to get high marks for the way he's handled New Jersey's response to the pandemic.

One of the top issues for decades, taxes, also sees Ciattarelli struggling to connect with voters. He barely scores higher than Murphy on the tax issue in the Monmouth poll.

There are still 11 weeks before election day, and the accuracy of public polling in major races has been questioned. However, democrats hold a huge voter registration advantage in New Jersey and many residents who had been unaffiliated swing voters have been moving solidly democratic.

The state's pandemic response will remain a critical issue leading up to election day, and any new restrictions could have an impact on voters. Governor Murphy is expected to impose a statewide mask mandate for indoor locations as early as Friday.

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