he annual town fair in Metuchen, N.J. isn't really known for bare-knuckle politicking. It's usually marked by parents eating funnel cakes drowned in powdered sugar and children trying to win goldfish by tossing beanbags into baskets. In election years, the political action is mostly candidates showing up for a little handshaking and baby-kissing.
But fairgoers got some dramatic theatrics this year. Democratic Senate candidate Frank Lautenberg's scheduled grip-and-grin was interrupted by the approach of his GOP opponent, Doug Forrester, dragging two podiums. Forrester challenged Lautenberg to make good on his earlier "any place, any time" debate pledge on the spot.
For about 15 minutes, Forrester asked the 78-year-old former senator to justify past votes against the 1991 Persian Gulf War and for military spending cuts, while Lautenberg, wagging his finger in Forrester's face, brought up his opponent's views on abortion and gun control. The exchange devolved into a shouting match by both men's supporters, with Forrester's backer's chanting, "DE-BATE, DE-BATE!" and Lautenberg's crowd countering, "WE WANT FRANK!" The scene ended when Metuchen's mayor asked them to move, and the former senator walked away.
Forrester has to hope that Lautenberg's quiet departure is an omen. He has been beating the drums for a debate since the last-minute substitution of the former senator for Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, the scandal-plagued Democrat whose poll numbers went into a death spiral in September.
Lautenberg has agreed to one debate on New York's NBC affiliate three days before the election, and his campaign manager, Tom Shea, has said another may be possible. But the Democrat has turned down all other offers so far, including one from Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert didn't rip Lautenberg by name, but he told the Washington Post that candidates who turn down 40 minutes of airtime on national TV would "prefer, apparently, to hide behind 30-second ads."
"You just can't do that," says David Rebovich, the managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. "It's the most respected non-cable political talk show on television. It's not like you've got to fly to Chicago or Los Angeles. It was a chance to put his party in a more positive light after the whole Torricelli debacle, and he failed. That, and Lautenberg's reluctance to have more debates, have given Forrester considerable ammunition."
The good news for Forrester is that Lautenberg's strategy of sitting on his lead and running out the clock has earned some tough criticism from the state's newspapers. The bad news is, the lack of debates hasn't hurt the Democrat in the polls much.
An MSNBC/Zogby poll last week showed Lautenberg leading Forrester by 48 percent to 36 percent, and a Star-Ledger-Eagleton-Rutgers poll released Sunday shows the Democrat with a five-point lead, 47 percent to 42 percent, among likely voters.
"Forrester has the support of about 91 percent of Republicans, so he's gotten everything he's going to get out of his base," says poll director Cliff Zukin. "Unless he can do something to win over more independents, it looks like New Jersey is going to continue its Democratic tilt."
Zukin's analysis has a few glimmers of hope for Forrester, but not much.
"Republicans are a little more revved than Democrats right now," Zukin says. "It's not as much as it was during the brouhaha about getting Torricelli out. Then, it was like a hornet's nest." A lot of GOP voters are still "furious" about the candidate switch, while Democrats support it and independents have mixed feelings, Zukin says.
From now until Election Day, state political experts expect Lautenberg to repeat his abortion-and-guns argument from Metuchen's semi-debate. Forrester supports abortion rights, but opposes public funding for the procedure. He opposes new gun-control proposals, arguing that the state ought to do a better job of enforcing the ones already on the books.
"The gun issue is working because of the sniper, and the abortion issue is gaining traction because of Forrester's lack of clarity early on in the race about how his position would affect his vote on Supreme Court nominees," Rebovich says.
In last few weeks, Forrester has attacked Lautenberg's votes in the Senate to cut defense spending, his opposition to a missile-defense system, and his opposition to the death penalty for convicted terrorists. But this argument hasn't had much immediate impact in the polls, and Rebovich doubts that will change.
"Obviously, it's a high priority, and most New Jerseyans do line up with president, particularly stemming from the impact of 9/11 and it aftermath," he says. "But my sense is that many New Jersey voters are not buying into the idea that a Jewish war veteran is not tough on the Middle East."
The hopes of New
Jersey Republicans may rest on the potential for an embarrassing Lautenberg
gaffe in the debate. The Baltimore Sun's correspondent has written
that the former senator "tends to ramble when speaking in public,"
and a Reuters reporter has observed that at a Lautenberg rally at a South
Orange bar, "the Democrat's self-assurance gave way to rambling at
times, drawing distracted looks from the audience." But will it be
Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for the Bergen Record.