Kyrillos, a close Republican ally of Gov. Christie, said the state cannot undo mistakes made at the national level. He pitched himself as the "change" candidate, arguing that re-electing Menendez would mean six more years of bad policy.
"There's nothing wrong with our New Jersey economy that a roaring national economy wouldn't fix," he said.
The candidates also traded barbs over abortion, taxes and foreign policy during the first of three scheduled debates.
New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican Senator since 1972. Menendez, 58, of Hudson County, leads in the polls and the money race, outraising his opponent by 5 to 1, according to the last federal campaign filings, in July.
In recent weeks, Kyrillos, 52, of Monmouth County, has sought to woo women and independent voters.
He described his stance on abortion as "restricted . . . pro-choice" at a campaign event in Hoboken last month. Kyrillos said he supports parental notification laws for minors seeking abortions, a waiting period and a ban on third-trimester abortions.
Menendez, who supports abortion rights, said Kyrillos is trying to have it both ways.
"We cannot afford, as it relates to a woman's right to choose, to be multiple choice," he said.
Kyrillos said he's never wavered from his stance on "life."
"I've voted for and advocated for some prolife initiatives," he said. "I've always felt that way."
On taxes, Menendez said he supports continuing the Bush income tax cuts for those with incomes below $200,000 ($250,000 for a married couple).
Kyrillos said all the cuts should be extended.
"Do we really want to raise taxes now?" he asked Menendez.
Kyrillos has said he'd be willing to close corporate tax loopholes but has repeatedly refused, in interviews and during the debate, to speficy which ones. He wants to cut federal income taxes for all by 20 percent over time and lower the corporate tax rate. Economic growth will pay for the cuts, he said.
That math doesn't work, Menendez retorted.
"If we are going to lower tax rates, that means less revenue coming into the treasury, so it has to come from somewhere," Menendez said. He proposes cutting $24 billion in tax breaks to oil companies and $6 billion in ethanol subsidies to offset the cost of the lower-income tax cuts.
Menendez defended sanctions on Iran that he helped write, calling them an "economic noose" that is stemming the country's nuclear ambitions.
Kyrillos shot back that the sanctions are "too little, too late." A nuclear Iran is "the greatest threat to our country and the world," he said.
Menendez was appointed in 2006 to fill the remaining U.S. Senate term of Jon S. Corzine, who had been elected governor the previous fall. In 2002, Menendez won a bruising battle against State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., who is now the Republican minority leader in the state Senate.
Kyrillos led Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 primary campaign in New Jersey.
Two more debates are scheduled for broadcast in the race for U.S. Senate in New Jersey:
Wednesday at 7 p.m. on New Jersey 101.5 FM.
Oct. 14 on 6ABC and Univision.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.