NJ Senate candidates to debate

April 16, 2008 2:09:25 PM PDT
The political underdog challenges the front-runner to a series of debates. The front-runner says his record in office speaks volumes.

The race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in New Jersey took on a predictable tone Wednesday as the challenger, Rep. Rob Andrews, urged the incumbent, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, to engage in seven or more debates before the June 3 primary.

"I'm making a respectful, serious request that he do the right thing, come before the voters of the state and answer the questions voters are asking," Andrews said in a teleconference with reporters. "The debates will show the people of New Jersey who has a set of ideas to move the country and the state into the future."

Julie Roginsky, a spokeswoman for Lautenberg, said the four-term incumbent senator would debate the veteran congressman, but she wouldn't offer specifics on how often or when.

"Yes, we will debate him, but we're not going to debate debates with him," said Roginsky. Once all the requests are compiled, she said, "we will determine where and under what circumstance we will debate him."

Andrews' said nine organizations already have made offers to sponsor debates.

"We accept," he said.

Political analysts say Andrews, 50, has everything to gain and nothing to lose by debating 84-year-old Lautenberg.

"That's completely normal - whoever thinks he has the advantage will be much more cautious about risking that advantage in a debate," said Peter Woolley, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and director of the school's PublicMind poll. "All the risk is on the guy who is ahead."

Lautenberg, a liberal who has been in the Senate since the 80s, has broad name recognition. Andrews, who has been a South Jersey congressman for 17 years, is not well known north of Trenton even after running statewide - against Jim McGreevey for governor - in 1997.

Televised debates would help Andrews get his name out to voters, said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. He has only seven weeks to overcome Lautenberg's fundraising and name-recognition advantages, along with the fact that New Jersey's Democratic establishment backs the incumbent.

According to campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission, Lautenberg had $4.3 million on hand as of December. Andrews had $2.2 million as of March 31. Lautenberg's latest quarterly filings have not yet been made public.

Reed said televised debates also could help Lautenberg lay to rest questions about whether he is too old to be effective.

Voter polls have shown concern over Lautenberg's fitness to serve another six-year term, which would end when he is 90.