It was a tough crowd for state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest).
Speaking as a surrogate for gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie to a group of conservatives who mostly supported rival candidate Steve Lonegan at the Conservative Leadership Breakfast at a diner in North Brunswick, Cardinale was interrupted by Lonegan’s chief strategist, Rick Shaftan, while he was making the case for Christie’s conservative ideals.
“This guy was just out there spewing cold lies out so I just corrected the record a bit,” said Shaftan.
That led to a testy exchange between Cardinale and Shaftan that would soon reverberate in the conservative blogosphere and add another layer of drama to an already tense primary campaign.
While Lonegan has taken a confrontational tone with Christie since he entered the race, the Christie camp has, at least until recently, purposefully refused to engage Lonegan. Last week, Christie gave a rare acknowledgement of Lonegan, albeit without mentioning his name, by criticizing his decision not to compete for party support at Republican county conventions. But it largely has fallen to Christie’s supporters, like Cardinale, to debate with the Lonegan loyalists.
The tension between the Christie and Lonegan camps has spilled out onto the internet, manifesting itself on two blogs: the pro-Lonegan Conservatives with Attitude!, run by Michael Illions, who organized Saturday’s event, and the pro-Christie Save Jersey Blog. The Web sites, which both lay claim to being New Jersey’s top right-leaning outlet, have taunted each other throughout the primary campaign. Just today, Save Jersey head blogger Matt Rooney referred to the rival site as “Conservatives with Angst!,” while Illions said that Rooney’s blog was “not conservative enough to ‘Save Jersey'” and linked to YouTube videos of paint drying and a tumbleweed blowing as alternatives to a Save Jersey interview with Rocco Riccio.
Shaftan said he decided to interrupt Cardinale after hearing the Senator say Christie was pro-life, supported school vouchers and the second amendment – claims that, according to one observer who was present, drew scattered skeptical grumblings from a few audience members. Shaftan brought up Cardinale’s past support of former Gov. Christie Whitman, whose legacy is anathema to the more conservative elements of the GOP.
“So I was like ‘Excuse me, Senator. You’re also the one who told us that Christie Whitman was pro-life,'” said Shaftan.
Shaftan said that he couldn’t resist interrupting Cardinale, partly because of his history of supporting establishment Republicans in primaries.
“The highlight of Gerry Cardinale’s career over the last 20 years has been shilling for liberal Republicans.”
Cardinale shot back, calling Shaftan the most disreputable political consultant in the state.
“I said ‘From you, Senator, that’s a compliment,” said Shaftan.
Cardinale, for his part, said that Shaftan was “seething” over his refusal to endorse Lonegan despite listening to a pitch from Shaftan.
“Rick was probably upset at my attending. He is very angry that I commented that all four Republican candidates are accomplished and would govern better than Corzine. He has been painting Christie as a RINO, distorting Christie’s common sense positions and generally lying to make his points,” wrote Cardinale in an email to PolitickerNJ.com.
Cardinale said that anyone who was politically active in the 1990s will recall that he never claimed Whitman was pro-life, but instead circulated a letter with former Passaic County Freeholder Richard DuHaime (father of political consultant Mike DuHaime, who’s running Christie’s campaign) saying that Whitman’s promised support of his abstinence education bill was a reason to help her get out the vote effort. Moreover, Cardinale said, Whitman did deliver on her promise to sign a parental notification bill he sponsored.
“But Rick has a short fuse and has been telling folks that Christie is pro choice, and opposed to everything conservatives hold,” he wrote. “Even Corzine is not as bad as Rick paints Christie.”
One of the three Christie supporters who attended the event, Fair Haven Mayor Michael Halfacre, said that Shaftan’s behavior was unbecoming for Lonegan’s campaign. He said as much in comments left on blogs after the event, but said today that he hopes the flare up does not get blown out of proportion.
“Shaftan behaved terribly inappropriately. That’s the bottom line,” said Halfacre. “And it’s a shame, because Steve Lonegan doesn’t deserve to be represented by a guy that would behave that way.”
Lonegan, however, gave unequivocal support to Shaftan.
“Rick was dead on,” he said. “We’re not going to back off and let people get away with this.”