Both sides spun hard after tonight’s Democratic Senate Primary debate on 101.5 FM, each trying to depict the other as inconsistent and deceptive.
But while experts – including U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) himself in the midst of the radio scrap – agree that U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1) is a formidable debater and was tonight, at no time during the hour and a half long forum just days prior to the June 3 primary did the senator deep-six himself.
"I thought Andrews acquitted himself very well and if this was an open seat he’d be odds on favorite," said Prof. Patrick Murray of Monmouth University. "Lautenberg acted annoyed that anyone was challenging him. While Andrews focused on detail, Lautenberg wanted to avoid answering questions directly."
Prof. Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University read it the same way.
"Clearly when you consider Congressman Andrews’s rhetorical style and the level of specificity, he did very well," said Harrison.
"You had to be impressed by his command of the facts and his ability to articulate his positions," she said of Andrews. "But Sen. Lautenberg has never been a public speaker with a great deal of finesse. I don’t think we saw anything tonight that we wouldn’t have seen in a debate performance of 20 years ago."
The Andrews campaign expressed confidence, however, that their candidate had sufficiently drilled Lautenberg, particularly when the senator attempted to talk about his record on the War in Iraq, an issue Lautenberg has used throughout the seven-week contest to neutralize Andrews.
"He blatantly misrepresented his staunch support for the Iraq War, casting himself as an opponent when, in fact, he repeatedly voiced his support for the invasion both before his election in 2000 and in the months after he returned to the Senate," Andrews campaign chairman Michael Murphy said of the senator.
"When challenged by Rob Andrews on his statements supporting President Bush’s war policy, Sen. Lautenberg had the audacity to say that his statements were ‘just words’," Murphy added.
Despite the senator’s retreat when Andrews pressed him about his public statements from 2002, ultimately Lautenberg’s camp was delighted to continue to keep the focus on the Iraq War.
After the debate, Lautenberg supporter U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) released a statement savaging Andrews’s plans for the embattled Middle Eastern country.
"Sen. Lautenberg said he would begin to withdraw troops within 90 days," said Pallone, referring to the first issue the candidates discussed in tonight’s debate.
"Andrews said he would keep them in Iraq for a year," Pallone recounted. "As Senator Lautenberg effectively explained tonight, he has been standing up to the Bush Administration and fighting to get our troops out of Iraq, saving health care for New Jersey’s children, preventing drilling off New Jersey's coast and reimbursing military families for body armor they have purchased for loved ones. By contrast, Rob Andrews spent a great deal of time being forced to defend his record of co-authoring the Iraq war resolution and serving as one of Bush's top enablers in getting our nation into Iraq."
From the day Andrews entered the race, the Lautenberg campaign fired one volley after another at his co-sponsorship of the Iraq War resolution, using his support for an unpopular war as the ballast they’re certain can sink his campaign.
Harrison felt that Lautenberg’s backtracking to Iraq in many of his answers to questions about other issues sounded forced, and lacked firepower in the face of Andrews’s precision on multiple subjects.
"He would start off with one issue and then would go to the war, almost as though he was trying to make it seem as though Congressman Andrews and Bush sat down at a bar together and hashed out the country’s Iraq War policy," the political science professor said of Lautenberg.
Even as Lautenberg chopped away at his answers, neither was he surgical in his cross-examination of Andrews, in Harrison’s view.
"There was a moment when Senator Lautenberg asked Congressman Andrews why he had supported changing pension funding requirements and Andrews asked him to cite a specific bill. Lautenberg said, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s never good in a debate when you bring something against someone and then and can’t cite specifics."
Murray argued that in a small turnout Democratic Primary, Andrews’s involvement in the lead-up to the Iraq War will dog him all the way to Election Day. While he sparkled with his answers, he can’t get around the image of himself standing behind Bush at an Iraq War resolution signing ceremony.
"Nothing lines up for Andrews in this race," Murray said. "The only key issue is Iraq, and as far as Democratic Primary voters are concerned, he’s clearly on the wrong side of the issue. The fact that Andrews was photographed with the president is enough to convince voters this guy isn’t the right guy for the U.S. Senate."
In his analysis, Murray returned to his first point which was that based on his skill in the debate – his uncanny ability to connect his vision of policy with real people’s lives – Andrews on a level playing field would be well-positioned come June 3.
But this is not a level playing field with an incumbent like Lautenberg in the race.
In that real context, "Andrews in the end didn’t do what he needed to do, which is explain why Lautenberg needs to be kicked out," Murray said. "You have to unseat an incumbent. Tonight, Lautenberg spoke in platitudes, but the Andrews campaign really needed to point out why voters shouldn’t vote for him other than to point out that he’s old."
Amplifying that point, Murray bemoaned Andrews’s compliment to Lautenberg regarding the senator’s success in securing homeland security funds, arguing that it reinforced the congressman’s failure ultimately to prove why his opponent shouldn’t return to the U.S. Senate.