The debates

Among political insiders of both parties, there seems to be a consensus: among people who watched one or both of the debates on television, Bob Menendez was the winner; and for the majority of undecided voters whose primary exposure to the forums was the coverage of the debates in the daily newspapers, there was no clear victor. That may be because no one delivered a knock out punch, and because the expectations game favored Tom Kean, Jr. — for whom the bar was set fairly low against an experienced debater and Washington veteran like Menendez. The painfully inarticulate Kean often seemed like a cross between James E. McGreevey’s 1997 robocandidate and Elmer Fudd. He kept repeating the lines he had memorized (how many times did he say that he was a proven reformer?), looked nervous and awkward (especially in the NBC debate), and had trouble with a rapid-fire “yes or no” format. But Kean also shed the gentlemanly image of his ancestors and showed a willingness to attack Menendez personally. A major gaffe or two could have ended the campaign of the former Governor’s son, so his mere ability to remain in the batters box of a big league game could be viewed as a good thing for a candidate who has increasingly faced criticim from Republicans that he isn’t quite ready for a statewide race. Menendez’s handlers were not overly thrilled with Sunday’s debate. They felt the debate spent too much time discussing ethics and that the Democratic incumbent missed several opportunities to tie Kean to George W. Bush and the Republican Congress. That was the impetus of Menendez’s stealth attacks on Bush and the GOP during Monday’s NJN debate. Menendez came across, as one Democrat described him as a little “Gore-esque” — a bit angry, slightly condescending, and not entirely warm and fuzzy. And unlike Kean, whose smiles appeared almost scripted, Menendez didn’t smile enough. Still, Menendez enjoys a slight lead in the polls, a strong fundraising advantage, and a political climate that favors his party.

The debates