"Frank Pallone is doing all the things necessary to launch a campaign," Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and member of the iconic political family, said last week. Kennedy, who grew close to Pallone in the House, is now a New Jersey resident, and said: "If he ends up running, I can really see being very enthusiastic about campaigning for him."
Pallone, 62, a Democratic stalwart who has dutifully bided his time while building his credentials in Congress, and Booker, 43, a fast-rising political phenom, are a study in contrasts.
Booker has rocketed to prominence with a fervent Twitter following, a pedigree as a Rhodes scholar, and a penchant for heroics that go viral. Most notably, he once rushed into a burning building to save a neighbor.
But his open ambition and national notoriety clash with criticism that he doesn't do enough at home. Elected mayor in 2006, Booker has often rankled the state's feudal kingmakers, and he infuriated Lautenberg by moving toward a run before the veteran senator had announced his decision.
Lautenberg hasn't stopped sniping since.
Pallone has built strong ties within his party, according to the picture painted by five Democratic insiders, all of whom requested anonymity.
He has been in Congress since 1988. He spreads campaign cash to fellow Democrats and tirelessly travels to offer support at news conferences, attend party functions, and dine with party leaders who carry significant weight. He has intentionally been obtuse about his ambitions, out of respect to Lautenberg. Pallone, who volunteered in the senator's first campaign in 1982, hopes to win Lautenberg's backing.
After Lautenberg announced his exit, Pallone said only that he was "interested in the Senate seat, and I'm certainly going to continue to explore it."
Pallone is a true liberal - like Lautenberg - and is consistently rated one of the most far-left members of Congress. A resident of Long Branch, along the Shore, he built his career on fighting for environmental protections and expanding health coverage, helping write President Obama's health-care law.
In the 2010 elections, as most Democrats sprinted away from that law, Pallone boasted on camera: "This is my bill."
He has long eyed a Senate seat, but when party leaders offered him a spot on the 2002 ballot to replace the scandal-plagued Sen. Robert Torricelli, Pallone balked, raising questions about his appetite for a fight. The seat went to Lautenberg - who had retired briefly - and Pallone has waited. He was in the mix to be appointed to the Senate in 2005 to replace Jon Corzine, but the spot went to then-Congressman Robert Menendez.
If Pallone wants to run now, he risks losing a safe House seat, his place as one of the top Democrats on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and his political career.
A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released last week showed that 73 percent of New Jersey voters don't know enough about Pallone to form an opinion of him, while 60 percent know Booker - and 51 percent view him favorably.
"When you're talking about going up against Cory Booker, then there's a huge disparity in name recognition and favorability," said Patrick Murray, the poll's director.
Pallone's best hope is that his party ties pay off with county chairs, who control ballot placement and the political infrastructure, both keys to winning in New Jersey.
But Booker's magnetic presence offers its own benefits for those leaders. His name can help down-ballot candidates, and while Pallone is a prolific fund-raiser, Booker's ties to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put him in a different stratosphere.
At a recent fund-raiser, Booker helped South Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton bring in $80,000.
The Senate intrigue has dominated New Jersey political chatter, but Democrats hope the wrangling fades into the background as the party focuses on this year's governor's race. By all accounts, it's unlikely Pallone will announce a decision until after that race is decided.
Numerous other Democrats have also shown interest in the seat, and Republicans will also have a say, though New Jersey has not voted a Republican into the Senate since the early 1970s.
With few statewide offices in New Jersey, Lautenberg's seat is a major prize that rarely comes open. For Pallone, there is a huge risk in running, but he may not get another chance.
Contact Jonathan Tamari
at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.