Deluge of debates to hit voters in top N.J. races

Steve Lonegan, a Republican former mayor of Bogota, is also seeking the seat. He and Booker are to debate twice.
Steve Lonegan, a Republican former mayor of Bogota, is also seeking the seat. He and Booker are to debate twice. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 04, 2013

The day before this month's U.S. Senate election in New Jersey, Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan will likely want to make one last pitch to voters to send them to Washington.

One problem: The Senate candidates will be competing for attention with Gov. Christie and State Sen. Barbara Buono, who will spar on television that night in the final debate before next month's gubernatorial election.

Starting Friday, voters will be hit with a deluge of debates: five in less than two weeks. The congested schedule grew out of Christie's decision to set the special Senate election for Oct. 16, three weeks before the Nov. 5 gubernatorial and legislative elections.

Friday's Senate debate will be broadcast at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on 6ABC. Christie and Buono take the stage Tuesday, and Booker and Lonegan spar again the next day at Rowan University.

The candidates for lieutenant governor, incumbent Republican Kim Guadagno and Democrat Milly Silva, face off the following Friday to wrap up the week.

"It's really compressed. If something happens out of these debates, it may be hard for voters to process it," said Patrick Murray, political analyst at Monmouth University. "With one debate tripping over another, one certain thing might not play out long enough to have an impact before the next debate comes up."

Regardless of the schedule, most voters don't watch the debates, Murray said, choosing to read news reports or watch YouTube clips. Any meaningful development in the races may fail to significantly alter the dynamics of the campaigns.

Christie has played down the significance of the proximity of the Oct. 15 gubernatorial debate to the special election the next day.

"What are people doing the night before an election that prevents them from watching the debate?" Christie asked last month. "Are they sitting there in a Zen state deciding whether to vote for Steve Lonegan or Cory Booker?"

In New Jersey, U.S. Senate races typically do not overlap with gubernatorial races, which are held the year after presidential elections. But the death of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg in June created a vacancy that Lonegan and Booker are trying to fill.

Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, has attacked Booker relentlessly as a "rubber stamp" for President Obama and has described the election as a referendum on Obama's health-care law, part of which went into effect Tuesday.

Newark Mayor Booker, meantime, has tied Lonegan to the tea party wing of the GOP, which pushed for a delay of part of the Affordable Care Act in a budget standoff this week that has resulted in a partial government shutdown.

While their differences are clear, one unknown heading into the debates is how Booker will respond to Lonegan's attacks. During the Democratic primary, Booker skipped one of three debates, citing a scheduling conflict.

Booker, who is considered the front-runner, led Lonegan by 13 points in the latest Monmouth University poll, released Tuesday. The Booker campaign announced Wednesday that it had raised $11.5 million since January and has $2.63 million on hand.

By contrast, Lonegan has raised about $1.4 million and has $241,000 on hand, a campaign spokesman said Tuesday.

"Are we going to get the Cory Booker who's above the fray and overestimates Steve Lonegan?" Murray asked.

While Lonegan is known for sometimes controversial off-the-cuff remarks, "he doesn't do that when sitting in a TV studio," Murray said. "He's very good when he knows he's in a controlled environment like that."

Lonegan has twice run for governor and once for Congress. "I've never had any worry about anything Steve Lonegan will do or say in a debate," said Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftan. "I've never seen a bad performance out of him."

"We know that Mr. Lonegan is a very skilled debater," Booker campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis said. "That's essentially been his job with Americans for Prosperity," a national conservative group for which Lonegan served as state director for seven years.

Booker expects Lonegan to be aggressive, Griffis said, but will focus on his record and "what he wants to do in the Senate to help improve lives of people in New Jersey."

The gubernatorial debates are more predictable because "we know how Christie performs" in that setting, Murray said. Even a strong Buono performance would be unlikely to change the contours of the race, he said.

Christie leads Buono by 19 points, according to a Monmouth poll released Wednesday.


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

Inquirer staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

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