Democratic Senate candidates campaign in Bergen

The two Democrats running for the U.S. Senate spent Memorial Day on the campaign trail, marching in parades in northern New Jersey.

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews today described the small Memorial Day parade in the tiny working class town of Wood-Ridge today as reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Andrews made his way through the town with its mayor, state Sen. Paul Sarlo – a key ally here in north Jersey, where Andrews hopes to capture enough votes that, combined with his dominance south of I-195, could give him a squeaker victory over incumbent Frank Lautenberg. He addressed a crowd of about 100 police, volunteer firemen and senior citizen veterans before heading off to Passaic County, where he would be accompanied by Freeholder Terry Duffy.

The Memorial Day ceremonies on the wings of endorsements by two newspapers with a large and influential presence in the state: The Philadelphia Inquirer, which covers much of Andrews’s base in south Jersey, and the state’s highest circulation paper, The Star-Ledger.

Andrews said that the newspaper endorsements were “a shot in the arm,” but that it was small compared to the sense of hope he gets when talking to voters.

“People are seeing the race as change versus the status quo,” he said. “I have a real sense that we are surging in this campaign.”

So much of a surge, Andrews said, that the poll by the Bergen Record that showed him trailing Lautenberg by 30 points had been rendered obsolete.

“That was before we went on television,” he said. “Clearly our TV buy is fueling the energy in this race.”

One of the ads Andrews referred to is a particularly controversial one that directly refers to the Senator’s advanced age. Some pundits have said that there’s a possibility it could backfire with senior citizen voters, but Andrews didn’t think so.

“I’ve met, I would say, 10,000 voters since that ad started running, and I haven’t heard one negative comment,” he said.

Sarlo was one of Andrews’s earliest north Jersey backers, and his support came just after Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero, a key ally, was thwarted from throwing his own support behind Lautenberg through pressure from Rep. Steve Rothman and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

Sarlo did not say whether Ferriero would engage the party machinery less for Lautenberg than he normally would, but did say that the top priorities for both himself and the chairman are defending their allies’ freeholder seats from primary challenges backed by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

“In all fairness to the chairman, the county committee convention was already held,” said Sarlo. “So he’s bound by that decision. Would the outcome have been different if there had been an Andrews candidacy earlier? I can’t answer that.”

About 20 miles north, in Bergenfield, Lautenberg spent part of his day in a town that much less resembles a Norman Rockwell painting: Bergenfield, where the 84-year-old World War II veteran energetically marched in a much larger, more ethnically diverse crowd at its Memorial Day Parade.

Lautenberg marched side-by-side with Rep. Steve Rothman, the man credited with keeping Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero from using his considerable resources on Andrews’s behalf. He was also accompanied by his wife, Bonnie, who along with Rothman frequently had to move him on from conversations with constituents along the route.

“That’s my wife. She’s here to keep people from flirting with me,” said Lautenberg to one woman spectator.

Most of the parade watchers seemed to recognize Lautenberg, though it was clear that the Andrews commercial, which pointed out that Lautenberg would be 91 at the end of his next term, had some sort of impact.

“He’s in perfect shape for 91,” said one spectator.

Lautenberg scoffed at Andrews’s claim that he felt a surge coming on.

“He wants to make sure there’s surge for the president in Iraq, regardless of the fact that over 4,000 died,” he said. “And he insists his vote was right that got us into that war. I’m a progressive Democrat and I aim to that mark, and Andrews is a talking head without getting any things done.”

Lautenberg said that he wasn’t particularly concerned about the major newspaper endorsements for Andrews.

“I would have preferred it the other way, but I don’t think it’s a blow,” he said. “This election is going to be resolved on the basis of which each of us has contributed to the state in our terms of office. He’s got a blank slate, nothing to talk about.”

Rothman, for his part, downplayed his threat that to run a slate of county committee candidates and possibly cost Ferriero his chairmanship if he backed Andrews.

“Bergen County Democrats are united behind Sen. Lautenberg in a way I have not seen in decades,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to retire the strongest, most effective member of our team.”

Democratic Senate candidates campaign in Bergen