In recent weeks, Lautenberg has rekindled a long-standing feud with the Republican governor, scorching a Christie appointee during a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday. Christie called it a "thuggish political show" and said Lautenberg's behavior was "an embarrassment to this state and an embarrassment to the United States Senate."
And it's not just Republicans lashing out at Lautenberg. South Jersey Democrats hammered him after he criticized the plan to merge Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University, a sign that they may back another candidate in 2014.
"They look at him as the cork in the bottle; he has to pop out before other people can come up," said Carl Golden, a contributing political analyst at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College. "Privately, many Democrats are saying, 'Gee, look, he'll be 90; it's time now to bring in a younger new person.' "
In the latest Christie-Lautenberg skirmish, the senator took advantage of a subcommittee meeting on toll increases to lay into Christie through Bill Baroni, whom the governor appointed as deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Baroni gave as good as he got, leading Lautenberg to call Baroni's "impertinence . . . barely tolerable."
"Talk straight. . . . I asked you a simple question," Lautenberg said. "You have to discuss it. . . . You work for the people, whether you think so or not."
Baroni, a former Republican state senator, shot back that Lautenberg took advantage of the same perks he now cites as part of the "dysfunction" of the Port Authority. Baroni held up an E-ZPass card that Lautenberg, who was a Port Authority commissioner from 1978 until 1982, used for free bridge crossings and parking as recently as 2006, when the agency ended the benefit for former members.
"It is impossible to argue fairness in tolls when you don't pay them," Baroni said.
The testy back-and-forth lasted for an hour before Lautenberg suddenly slammed down the gavel, cutting off Baroni's meandering answer and abruptly ending the hearing.
Christie fired back at a news conference Thursday in Trenton.
Lautenberg "fed at the trough for 24 years," Christie said. "A multimillionaire, a guy who brags about how rich he is, couldn't go into his pocket to pay the tolls? He couldn't go into his pocket to pay for parking at Port Authority facilities?"
Lautenberg, who recently challenged Christie to a "footrace" to settle their differences, has called Christie's attacks on him "childish."
"There he goes again - the name-calling governor," Lautenberg said in a statement Thursday. "The governor is so afraid of answering legitimate questions that he resorts to distractions and juvenile name-calling."
He added, "As a war veteran, I've gone up against much larger foes than Chris Christie, so I won't be deterred from fighting on behalf of everyday people in New Jersey."
Christie and Lautenberg have been at each other's throats for years, and pundits aren't totally sure why. But Christie's decision to back out of a multibillion-dollar transit tunnel into New York City is a big recent piece of it, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Lautenberg "spent years cobbling together the financing to get the biggest public-works project in the country off the ground," Dworkin said. "He thought he had the support of incoming governor Chris Christie, and then he didn't."
The unfinished tunnel project came up again this month when a federal report noted that Christie's decision to pull out because of its potential cost to New Jersey was based on inaccurate estimates. Lautenberg continues to call Christie's decision one of the biggest policy blunders in the state's history.
The fissure between Lautenberg and some state Democrats came up in late March when the senator criticized the proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University in Glassboro. The senator questioned the costs and logic of the merger, positing that the plan had more to do with political gain for some than improving the state's higher-education system.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) called Lautenberg's concerns "bizarre and misguided" and accused Lautenberg of failing to bring home enough bacon from Washington.
"Our state ranks a dismal 47th out of 50 in federal funding for higher education," Sweeney said in a statement. "That is unacceptable. Yet rather than fighting in Washington on our state's behalf, he engages in unseemly grandstanding back home in an attempt to settle old political scores."
South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, who chairs the board of Cooper University Hospital (a facility aligned with Rowan), also told Lautenberg to stay out of it. He called the state's ranking in federal funding for higher education "a disgusting blemish."
"New Jersey desperately needs the senator's help, not his hysteria," Norcross said in a statement. "Rather than provoking a political food fight on this, let's focus our efforts on . . . improving higher education in our state and region."
Norcross is part-owner of The Inquirer.
Christie joined in, calling Lautenberg "a partisan hack" who should step down. The governor has insisted that the university merger will become official this summer, despite few details on costs or logistics.
But Lautenberg wasn't asking questions that haven't also been raised by Rutgers faculty and students or members of the state Senate's Higher Education Committee.
Pundits say the attacks on Lautenberg are an attempt to "soften him up" and make him appear vulnerable.
It's telling, Golden said, that no Democrat stuck his neck out for Lautenberg.
"You didn't see any member of the congressional delegation come to his defense," he said. "The state chairman isn't going to get in the middle of this, because he would get crushed. It's clash of the titans."
And nobody wanted to take on Norcross, he said, because anyone considering a primary run against Lautenberg will need Norcross' help to get South Jersey votes.
"It's sort of like: 'Frank, you want to fight? I'll hold your coat,' " Golden said.
Unlike many politicians, Lautenberg didn't come up through the party ranks. He grew up in the working-class city of Paterson. He served in the Army during World War II, went to Columbia University on the GI Bill, and started a company with two friends after graduation. The business, Automatic Data Processing, or ADP, was the nation's first payroll-services company.
Lautenberg ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982 because he wanted to serve his country again, he said. Then age 58, Lautenberg used his relative youth as a weapon to help defeat his more experienced opponent, U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick, then 72. Fenwick, an independent Republican, served four terms in Congress.
"He used code words," said Golden, who, at 75, is old enough to remember the campaign. "He questioned things like her energy and suggested that the issues were very complex and questioned if she was up to it."
When asked about the tone of the campaign during the April 11 event at Rider University, Lautenberg said he remembered asking Fenwick to come with him to Camden and go up on a crane to see economic redevelopment in action.
"I didn't know she couldn't walk up five sets of stairs," he said. "It then disintegrated. I stood my ground. I didn't call her names. . . . By the yardsticks that are used now, it was a gentle campaign, I must say."
Now Lautenberg is the one contending with age. He'll run in 2014, "Lord willing," he said at Rider.
Other Democrats may be sick of waiting for him to retire.
"It is likely that we will see a primary challenge to the senator," Dworkin said.
Sweeney is considering a Senate run and set up a federal campaign fund. Several long-serving members of Congress and Newark Mayor Cory Booker also have been mentioned as possible candidates.
Two years is a lifetime in politics, but if Wednesday's hearing was any indication, Lautenberg isn't giving up the fight yet.
"It's his effort to say, 'If you want to run against me in the primary, you better be prepared, because you're going to have your hands full,' " Golden said.
Contact Joelle Farrell
at 856-779-3237, email@example.com, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.