The fifth and final debate between Sen. Ellen Karcher and Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck will go down tomorrow in Marlboro, the most populous town in this contentious 12th district senate contest.
The campaigns have built up to this moment, where in the midst of a blitz of radio and television ads, shrieking voices, frantic cell phone calls and a chattering class assessment that Karcher is in trouble, these two bitter antagonists will stand on an otherwise barren stage for one last trumpet blast.
The debates have been battlezones here in the 12th.
This is not like the neighboring 14th district where a few days ago as the candidates appeared together for their tenth debate and second of the day, there was a palpable emanation of fatigue onstage and an unspoken sense among the participants of "I won't hit you, if you don't hit me."
Beck and Karcher are have never stopped trading from the beginning of this campaign cycle. At least one of their encounters devolved into a fiasco, prompting cringing handlers on both sides to all but turn on the fire hoses.
The women split a pair of fairly civil contests on two other occasions. In their Monmouth Reform Temple debate in Tinton Falls, Karcher went to a greater level of detail in her answers to questions about health care and education, and is generally acknowledged to have won that round. On Sunday's NJN debate with Michael Aron, Beck appeared in control, and took a stronger stand than Karcher in her opposition to asset monetization.
"Karcher is leaving herself a significant amount of wiggle room on that issue," says Beck campaign spokesman Tom Fitzsimmons.
A day before her showdown with Karcher, Beck had scheduled a press conference with Sen. Minority Leader Leonard Lance, where she called on Karcher and Assemblyman Michael Panter to oppose asset monetization in the lame duck session of the Assembly.
Karcher, meanwhile, was going door-to-door in Red Bank during both the afternoon and evening hours and hitting diners to talk with voters, according to campaign spokesman Michael Premo.
Post debate, Beck's people are bringing in former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Thursday. On Friday afternoon, the Karcher campaign will welcome U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and state Senate President Richard Codey to greet seniors in East Windsor. Then on Saturday, Gov. Jon Corzine will join Karcher on the trail.
Karcher's next press conference is Thursday, where where intends to stand with working families to underscore her commitment to paid family leave, which she supports and Beck rejects, Premo said.
Beck's campaign was also loading up a new radio spot set to hit the airwaves today, according to Fitzsimmons.
The debate tomorrow evening will take place in the Greenbriar Community, which is a senior citizen's housing complex. On the undercard, Republican Marlboro Mayor Robert Kleinberg is scheduled to face his Democratic challenger, Jonathan Hornik.
In these public forums the questions are spoon-fed and the house is usually packed with partisans on both sides. At this point late in the game, almost every campaign says it's GOTV and not whoever stumbles over a question in a debate attended by 100 people.
"About the only thing they're good for is if you can catch a candidate scratching his head, so they can run an ad asking a question like, 'How many times did so-and-so raise property taxes,' and then show a shot of the guy scratching his head, otherwise they don't make much of a difference in a legislative race like this," says GOP operator Rick Shaftan.
Still, neither side can afford a meltdown in a close race, and the handlers know they have to get their candidates up for this final forum showdown.
"If you have a candidate who reads from notes as opposed to one who speaks to each issue, the one who isn't reading generally fares better," says Shaftan. "If you have to read from notes, you probably aren't that impassioned or informed about the issues. When you don't need to give a candidate notes, you're in good shape."