Booker was out yesterday afternoon reminding voters that he wasn't just a smiling face they've seen on television - his blue campaign bus parked in a sprawling housing development in suburban Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County. "Hello, how are you," Booker, dressed in jeans and a blazer said after Malachi and Michele Washington answered their door.
"Cory, I'll tell you, you've got at least seven votes in this house," Malachi Washington, 63, replied.
Booker, 44, has a "seemingly unbeatable" lead, a recent Quinnipiac University poll concluded, against a crowded field of qualified Democrats trying to fill the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg's seat. Booker's opponents include U.S. Reps Frank Pallone and Rush Holt from New Jersey's 6th and 12th districts, and State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
Booker had 54 percent of likely Democratic voters behind him, according to Quinnipiac, and he's already had to deny rumors he was seeking a 2016 presidential bid as his opponents look for statewide name recognition.
Pallone, 61, from Monmouth County, is running a distant second to Booker in polls, with 17 percent of likely voters telling Quinnipiac they'd vote for him. For the GOP, Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota in Bergen County, had an even larger lead, 74-10, against his opponent, Somerset County physician Alieta Eck, and he's spent much of his campaign focusing on Booker and the special general election on October.
The last Republican elected to the Senate in New Jersey was Clifford Case in 1972, and although polls have Booker beating Lonegan handily in the general election, he said the phenomenon of Gov. Chris Christie is proof a conservative can win in the state.
"This isn't a state that wants to elect extreme liberals," Lonegan told the Daily News yesterday.
Holt, 64, believes there's a vast difference in how far he and his opponents, particularly Booker, lean to the left on the issues. Holt has called for repealing the Patriot Act and taxing stock trades, and he recently received the endorsement of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women.
"I'm the progressive in this race and I'm the proud progressive," the former scientist and five-time "Jeopardy!" winner told the Daily News.
Both Holt and Lonegan believe Booker has gotten a "pass" from the media, claiming he's already been crowned by political observers across the country.
"It's presumptuous for anybody to say they know how this is going to work out. I'm the one who has faced tough elections in the past and won," said Holt, who was first elected to the House in 1998.
There have been recent reports in the New York Times and New York Post detailing Booker's financial ties to Silicon Valley executives and alleged "confidential" payouts he received from his former law firm while serving as mayor.
The Republican Lonegan said the stories were more evidence that Booker was "beholden to Google and Facebook" but he also believes Booker's stewardship over Newark has been a failure, saying the city continues to struggle with violence, unemployment and a troubled school system.
"Cory Booker used Newark as a steppingstone for speaking engagements all across the country," he said.
Booker has been planning for this Senate race for much longer than the other candidates, an ambition that irked Lautenberg's camp before the senator died in June at 89. Lautenberg's family has endorsed Pallone, saying "gimmicks and celebrity status won't get you very far in the real battles that Democrats face in the future."
Booker still needs to turn his popularity, his 1.4 million Twitter followers and star-studded support from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, into actual votes, political observers said.
"Just because Booker is popular, it doesn't mean people are going to show up to the polls on Tuesday," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "The challenge for the Booker team is to make sure all those people who know him and like him actually get out there and vote."
That was the game plan behind the bus tour, Booker said yesterday in Egg Harbor Township. He visited about a half-dozen homes of people who appeared to be expecting him, strolling past perfect lawns and pumpkin patches with state Sen. Jim Whelan and his team, cameras and video equipment in tow.
"This is how I started out, underdogging in Newark, and we ended up pulling out high voter turnout," he said before getting on the bus and heading to a rally in Atlantic City. "It engages the voters."
Back at the Washington home, Malachi and Michele figured they'd actually have about nine people voting for Booker when they included all the grandchildren.
"I come at it from feeling," Malachi Washington said in his living room, "and I'm feeling really good about his candidacy right now."
On Twitter: @JasonNark