For the first time, the full field of three Republican Senate candidates met tonight to debate.
The forum, held at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Madison campus, was moderated by Star-Ledger conservative columnist Paul Mulshine. Candidates Joe Pennacchio, Murray Sabrin and Dick Zimmer spent their time addressing the issues and laying out some stark differences in policy– for the most part, anyway.
A question from former Bergen County Freeholder candidate Deirdre did spark a heated argument between the two longer standing candidates, Joe Pennacchio and Murray Sabrin.
Woodbyrne asked whether the candidates would pledge to stop making personal attacks on fellow Republicans. Sabrin responded that he would continue to campaign against what he saw as failed party leadership in Trenton.
Pennacchio said that he had issued his own similar clean campaign pledge months ago and kept to it.
“We made it public and we encouraged all candidates to sign that pledge,” he said. “Today none have. And it’s funny, because I was the proud recipient of some of Murray’s promises: distortions, name-calling, because he believes in practicing politics instead of delivering a principled message.”
Sabrin, in turn, brought up Pennacchio’s “A Nationalist Agenda” – a few policy papers that had Pennacchio put together and promulgated back in 1991. That treatise resurfaced after Sabrin publicized them last month, calling it a “fascist manifesto.” In response to Pennacchio, Sabrin brought the papers up tonight.
“Joe Pennacchio wrote a tract 17 years ago and he claims in this campaign he’s a Ronald Reagan democrat and Ronald Reagan Republican,” said Sabrin. “Yet in this tract he calls Reagan economics ‘voodoo economics.’”
“Murray, Murray, Murray,” said Pennacchio. “No wonder the Bergen Record called you a ‘loose cannon.’”
Zimmer, the candidate who came in to the race too late to experience much of the antipathy between Sabrin and Pennacchio, sat helplessly between the two.
But Zimmer’s entrance into the race less than two weeks ago has drawn criticism from his fellow candidates, including from Sabrin, who requested that the FBI investigate him. And tonight, his very recent status as a Washington lobbyist was fair game for his opponents.
“I’ve begun my campaign with a promise to campaign on the issues. I have not attacked wither of my opponents on a personal basis,” he said.
Unlike the debate between Pennacchio and Sabrin in Gloucester County last month, the candidates, for the most part, did not take similar positions on some hot button issues.
On abortion, Sabrin said that the federal government ought to leave the decision as to whether or not to allow the procedure to the states.
Pennacchio said that he supports an amendment to the constitution that bans abortion outright in all 50 states, and that states that legalize gay marriage can’t be trusted on the question of abortion.
“It’s difficult to say send it back to the states. You don’t have to look any further than the taking apart of marriage,” he said.
Zimmer, for his part, said that he believes that a woman’s right to an abortion should be maintained, though he advocated mandatory parental notification for minors and a ban on partial birth abortion (which he voted against in 1996 but changed his mind in 1997, just after leaving office).
“As somebody who believes the government should play the least possible role in our personal lives, this should, except in cases I identified, remain the decision of the woman, her doctor and her spiritual advisor,” he said.
The three candidates also presented different opinions on the federal budget.
Sabrin criticized Zimmer’s focus on eliminating earmarks, saying that the federal government requires the elimination of many agencies and large bureaucracies.
Zimmer acknowledged that eliminating earmarks won’t be enough, but said that the government needs to eliminate programs like the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska to gain credibility first.
Pennacchio said that the United States should look into reallocating defense funds by lowering its presence in places like Europe and South Korea. He also criticized Lautenberg for New Jersey’s drop in the amount of money it gets back from the federal government since he originally took office in 1983.
“I have a novel idea – why not stop sending it down in the first place,” he said.
Pennacchio said that developing energy independence is the cornerstone of his campaign, and that he would support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But he said that the nation needs to put more resources into developing alternate forms of energy.
In fact, all three candidates did something quite unusual for Republicans: they praised France (for embracing nuclear energy, which supplies 80% of that nation’s power).
“This anti-nuclear hysteria is causing us to be more dependent on foreign oil,” said Sabrin.
Zimmer said that he would not support drilling for oil in ANWR, and said that the best policy is conservation of resources. The federal government, Zimmer said, should provide research subsidies for alternate form of energy like solar and wind.
That drew criticism from Sabrin, who said that Zimmer was advocating those measures to benefit his lobbying firm’s clients.
“Dick Zimmer has been a lobbyist for a number of years and he wants to put more of our tax dollars into energy,” he said.
On immigration, all three candidates said they favor eliminating birthright citizenship and building a border fence.
None of the candidates would give a straight answer to an audience member’s question about which Democratic presidential candidate they’d prefer in case John McCain doesn’t win the general election.
“You’re asking me if I prefer to get hit by a truck or a bus,” said Sabrin.