All but counted out in his district 8 state Senate race, Assemblyman Fran Bodine threw aside a dysfunctional microphone and declared in a booming voice his willingness to fight Wednesday night in front of an audience of mostly senior citizens in the gated community of Leisuretown in Southampton.
His opposition was subdued, even silent.
Sitting on a lead according to internal GOP polling, confident in the knowledge that the district tilts in his direction, and fearful of being captured by what Republicans said might be the presence of a hidden video camera wielded by the Democrats, GOP state Senate candidate Phil Haines kept his mouth shut.
Criticized to this point for running a stumbling, bubble-wrapped campaign, Bodine fielded question after question from the crowd on everything from property tax relief to political corruption to per-student school budgeting, to withdrawing pension rights for convicted officials, to why he switched parties.
Haines, meanwhile, allowed his running mates, Freeholder Dawn Addiego and Medford Mayor Scott Rudder to take periodic stabs at questions from the audience of nearly 100 residents.
After the debate, Haines and the Republicans hastily left the room while Bodine continued to take questions and allowed himself to be filmed in an impromptu interview with PoliticsNJ.com.
"They’re talking about what’s going on in Trenton, but their own senator is a part of that," the candidate said of his opponents and outgoing District 8 Sen. Martha Bark, who is under federal investigation for receiving thousands of dollars for what were allegedly no-show jobs.
Bodine, who changed parties earlier this year to run for the state Senate, wouldn’t say who he supports in a developing 3rd Congressional District race. He has long had a close relationship with U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, a Republican, who is being challenged by state Sen. John Adler.
Earlier in the evening, a senior citizen attending the forum asked Bodine why he suddenly became a Democrat.
"I have the time to serve," said the senate candidate. "I am the most qualified to serve. That’s why I changed parties."
Bodine said he had wanted to run for senator as a Republican and reluctantly stepped aside when the party chairman informed him the party instead wanted Burlington County Clerk Haines.
The assemblyman later told the chairman that despite his disappointment in not being the senate candidate, he would again like to run for the Assembly. The chairman told him ok, then later informed him by telephone that GOP polling data showed younger candidates faring better than the aging Bodine.
Bodine said he told the chairman that he was elected to serve the people of the 8th district, not pollsters, and promptly hung up the telephone. After twice being approached by the Democratic Party to run for state Senate, Bodine met U.S. Rep. Bob Andrews and decided to switch parties.
The 8th district Democratic team, which includes Bodine’s running mates Mount Laurel Councilwoman Tracy Riley and restauranteur Chris Fifis, was confident that the Republicans’ listless performance in the Q and A meant that the Democrats had won the debate.
"They are tied at the hip to Martha Bark, (Burlington County GOP boss) Glen Paulsen and Bob Steers, and voters are beginning to see that," Democratic Party operator Jeff Meyer said after the contest.
Fifis hammered on that connection, reminding voters that Steers and the Strategy Group bilked $2.7 million in taxpayer dollars from the Republican-run Burlington Bridge commission.
"State Republican Chairman Tom Wilson was partnered with Bob Steers," said Fifis, tying to amplify a point repeatedly made by the Democrats here tonight that one-party rule in Burlington had stagnated the system.
In her single attempt to answer a question, Freeholder Dawn Addiego railed against "the failure of the Abbot districts."
Citing runaway property taxes in the state, Addiego said, "We’re still paying for failed school districts. …You need a voice in Trenton who isn’t afraid to say it."
Haines said nothing to the public during the question and answer portion of the debate, but he signaled to the moderator at one point, who prevailed on an audience member to shut off his video camera.
PoliticsNJ.com overheard a Republican in the audience say the Democrats have pumped thousands of dollars into network television, and that Haines and the Republicans don’t want to be filmed and morphed into grainy, slow-motion attack ads against themselves.
"Just wait until tomorrow," said the grinning Republican. "Bodine's going to take a hit."
But Wednesday night, at least, belonged to Bodine.