TRENTON — If Donald Trump ends up winning the White House, he might want to send a thank-you note to New Jersey's blueberry country.
Last month, with his presidential bid battered by controversies and low poll numbers, Trump revamped his staff and tapped a new campaign manager: veteran GOP strategist Kellyanne Conway, who has run her own Washington D.C. polling firm for two decades.
But really, the way Conway tells it, the road to all of this started three decades ago when she was growing up in south Jersey. Especially the eight summers she spent working on a blueberry farm in Hammonton.
In 1983, a 16-year-old Conway was even crowned the winner of the New Jersey Blueberry Princess pageant.
And four years later, she won the World Champion Blueberry Packing competition — a title she's much prouder to own.
After all, she explained, packing blueberry crates inspired her to become an entrepreneur.
"The faster you went, the more money you'd make," Conway, now 49, told NJ Advance Media. "I wouldn't stop to drink for hours. I would just keep going."
"Everything I learned about life and business started on that farm," she said.
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On Monday night, Trump, the Republican nominee, will enter his first debate with Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in a much stronger position than he was a month ago.
And that, experts say, is largely because of Conway.
When Trump hired her as campaign manager and Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon as campaign CEO, Trump was trailing Clinton by eight percentage points in the ABC News/Washington Post poll. As of this weekend, he's cut that gap to 2.5.
"Before the switch, the campaign was just one pubic mistake after the other," said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University. "Clearly, there is now much more discipline."
"It's still a difficult path to win, but is he doing better than he was six weeks ago? I think the numbers bear that out," Dworkin added. "And the biggest difference is she's come aboard."
Conway was raised in the Atco section of Waterford Township in Camden County — a "blue-collar farming community," as she puts it.
She calls her childhood home "very nonconventional." Her mother and father divorced when she was young. So she grew up in a house with her mother — who spent 21 years working at the Claridge casino in nearby Atlantic City — and two of her mother's unmarried sisters.
"These Italian-Catholic women raised me," Conway said.
She graduated in 1985 from St. Joseph High School in Hammonton and moved to Washington D.C. for college. Soon, that became her adopted home.
Conway earned a political science degree from Washington's Trinity College and a law degree from George Washington University Law School. Then, she entered the dizzying world of American politics by working for Dick Wirthlin, President Ronald Reagan's pollster.
In 1995, Conway founded her own firm, The Polling Company, doing work for a number of notable politicians: Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence — the last of whom is now Trump's running mate.
In 1999, she found time to return to New Jersey to work on the second re-election campaign of Mercer County Executive Robert Prunetti.Kellyanne Conway full interview
"I thought she was absolutely brilliant," Prunetti remembered. "She sees the data, she understands the data. She knows what you've got to do to reach that constituency. She never let ideology get in the way of smart political behavior."
Conway and her husband, attorney George Conway, lived for years in D.C. and in New York City. But eight years ago, they bought a home in Alpine in Bergen County — known as one of the most expensive zip codes in America, where celebrities from P. Diddy to Chris Rock to Joe Piscopo have lived.
Conway said she sold their New York apartment nine days before Democrat Bill de Blasio became mayor — "because I wanted to count as part of the de Blasio flight to the suburbs."
Part of the reason they picked New Jersey was so her four children — who attend Alpine's public schools — could get a taste of the life she had growing up.
Conway's mother and one of her aunts still live in the home where she was raised. Her aunt and uncle have a roadside stand in front.
"I am very grateful for and nostalgic about my childhood in New Jersey," Conway said. "I'm a Jersey girl. ... It was very important to us for our children to have that south Jersey experience."
Trump actually hired Conway in July, as a consultant to help him find ways to appeal to women voters. A month later, she was his campaign manager.
"I sent her a text at the time: 'If anybody can right this ship, I know you can,'" Prunetti said.
Conway is actually one of many New Jerseyans in key positions in the Trump campaign — including Gov. Chris Christie, Trump's transition chair, and Jared Kushner, the real estate developer and publishing magnate who is married to Ivanka Trump, the candidate's oldest daughter.
It's not a surprise: Trump spent 25 years as a casino owner in Atlantic City and still owns three private golf clubs here.
"We tease him all the time," Conway said of the Garden State ties. "I think the cream rises to the top."
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, notes that Conway's influence on Trump appears to be "limited" — as evidenced by the reemergence of questions about the years Trump spent questioning if President Obama was born in the U.S.
"He went right back out there with the 'birther' stuff," Murray said.
And Conway has faced criticism of her own in the press for defending Trump's 'birtherism,' as well as his refusal to release his tax returns.
But Frank Luntz, a prominent pollster who has known Conway for decades, agreed that Trump's decision to hire her was a good one.
Luntz remembered when, in 1988 — a year after Conway's blueberry packing championship — he visited her home in Atco.
"She grew up in a very close family, and that helps her communicate in a more personal way that is less political," he said. "Her greatest value is her understanding of how people live and think and being able to communicate that to the electorate."
"Frankly, she's a better communicator than Donald Trump," Luntz continued. "He needs her to help him translate his vision to the American people."
Brent Johnson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.
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