Booker should be thankful for Oct. election

As Cory Booker's lead narrows, did Christie do him a favor?
As Cory Booker's lead narrows, did Christie do him a favor? (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 14, 2013

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker's campaign seemed to be over long before he suspended it briefly due to his father's death.

But if Newark's celebrity mayor nevertheless wins big against scrappy Steve Lonegan this Wednesday, he ought to thank Gov. Christie for setting the special election for October rather than November.

Another month of campaign events as underwhelming as Booker's recent debates with Lonegan might well have boosted the Republican upstart's prospects for an upset, particularly with superstar Christie atop the GOP's November ballot.

While Booker's lead has fallen from its summer heights, Quinnipiac and other polls had him ahead by a comfy dozen points late last week. Lonegan's campaign claims its internal polls reveal a "neck-and-neck" race, but I wouldn't stick my neck out too far on that one.

Nevertheless, the political limitations of Booker's fame, fund-raising prowess, and fabulous smile have been made clear.

It's one thing for him to tout the Whole Foods development proposed for a defunct downtown department store as a sign of progress. It's another to suggest that Newark has somehow been transformed on his watch.

Consider as well how easily Booker's garrulous glibness withered under the personal/political firebombs that Lonegan, the former mayor of a Bergen County suburb, lobbed his way during the debates.

The tea party luminary boiled, but Booker played it cool (too cool). Lonegan fired and Booker ducked, offering earnest expressions of incredulity that were no match for his opponent's reactionary self-righteousness.

Lonegan acted like a pompous ideologue barely able to contain his disdain. He sneered at the very notion of gay families, wondering aloud whether New Jersey should continue to allow gays to adopt children (though on Friday he fired a top strategist for comments about Booker's tweets with an Oregon stripper).

As Lonegan proclaimed, declaimed, and occasionally defamed, his opponent offered civics-lesson observations that sounded like obfuscations. Booker's gee-whiz wonkitude and "let's work together" platitudes made him seem even more lightweight than critics say.

The saber-toothed, tin-eared Lonegan gleefully described Booker's Newark - a city where the Republican personally and repeatedly campaigned, to his credit - as a "black hole" for taxpayers with bodies of homicide victims floating in its waterways.

Booker called Lonegan an extremely extreme extremist who was "insulting" to cities and would limit access to abortion.

A certain remoteness has been evident in the Democrat for some time. As my colleague Jonathan Tamari reported, Booker campaigned in absentia during much of September. He was evidently too busy hobnobbing with movie stars, filling his war chest, and tweeting to press the flesh of mere New Jerseyans.

Perhaps the mayor expected campaigning to be a coronation pageant, or an outpouring of adoration like the one I saw a crowd in Willingboro shower upon him in early June.

Lonegan immediately started to spin the second and final debate - an hour-long brawl at Rowan University - as a smackdown. But its outcome is unlikely to move many, if any, of the minuscule number of "undecideds" planning to vote Wednesday.

The ferocious fracas was great TV, however, sort of a mixed martial arts and Real Housewives of New Jersey mash-up without the face-lifts. It also revealed that the liberal mayor has a hide every bit as thick as does Lonegan.

But the debate also suggested that Booker and his campaign have underestimated Lonegan, whose Jersey pugnaciousness is displayed with less finesse than Christie's, but still reads as "real."

Camp Booker has seen victory as inevitable, permitting the candidate to coast, phone it in from late-night TV, and play it safe. They haven't taken Lonegan seriously. It's as if the former mayor of Bogota were a joke.

But there's nothing funny about Steve Lonegan.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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