Pallone tag teams with Lautenberg in primary battle, notes that he’s ‘unbossed’

LONG BRANCH – U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone leads the way up to the top of the Windmill and considers a question regarding the main difference between U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and his Democratic Primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews.

He doesn’t hesitate to take a shot.

Pallone’s in this fight, on Lautenberg’s side. All up and down Ocean Avenue and in other vital pockets of the 6th Congressional District stand lawn and street signs to that effect: “Lautenberg-Pallone. Vote June 3.”

Andrews’s signs interface his rival’s with only one name on them: his own. And yet it’s the mention of Andrews’s longtime closeness with South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III – the unseen figure in this race – that creates an opening for Pallone to draw what he considers a solid argument for Lautenberg.

“One thing that stands out about Frank Lautenberg is he’s never been bossed,” says Pallone. “He has always stayed away from them (the bosses). His independence is one major reason he should be re-elected.”

Andrews’s people say their man’s surprise challenge of Lautenberg demonstrates that, bossed or not, he’s willing to do something Pallone couldn’t, which is run without much time and with a cash disadvantage.

It’s true that Pallone was right there once – on the verge of becoming the Democrats’ candidate for U.S. Senate. It was 2002, and Gov. James McGreevey and other party leaders gave Pallone the option to replace the fallen Robert Torricelli. He almost took it, then decided no – and that’s when Lautenberg came out of retirement and beat Republican businessman Douglas Forrester.

“I thought Lautenberg was in a better position,” Pallone says. “We had six weeks left, and he had the money and name recognition to go up against Forrester.”

More recently, talk of a nailed down deal between Gov. Jon Corzine and Norcross that would give Andrews the Senate seat in the event the 84-year old Lautenberg departed prior to finishing his term, proved spurious when the congressman challenged Lautenberg outright.

“Corzine tells them all they’re going to be the next senator,” says an Andrews backer, referring to Andrews, Pallone, U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell.

In any event, never secure in the notion that he would be the party heir, Andrews bluntly went after something he wanted.

Pallone says regardless of who comes next, Lautenberg deserves another shot, and not, he insists with a laugh, because a vote for Lautenberg equals a vote for Pallone at some future date. Lautenberg does a good job, in the congressman’s view, and on that basis alone he shouldn’t be replaced.

Pallone argues that the senator is not only independent, but a liberal progressive with environmental concerns very much in line with his own views. By contrast, Pallone says, Andrews represents a more conservative, rightward tilting ideology, demonstrated by his co-sponsorship of the Iraq War resolution, and his support of major pieces of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

“We don’t need another Lieberman in the Senate,” says Pallone. We don’t need more people who can’t be counted on to vote for Democrats.”

The congressman doesn’t see a close race between Lautenberg and Andrews next Tuesday.

“What I’ve seen with Lautenberg is the impact that someone who has served in the Senate has had through the years,” he says. “The sense I get out there – the sense I got from two parades in two days – one in South Amboy and the other today in Old Bridge – is that he’s the senator and people are voting for him. I don’t see how you overcome that. These are not Republicans or independents.”

Pallone argues that the organizational lines that position Lautenberg with local Democratic candidates give the incumbent a strong advantage in the northern counties where the most Democratic votes are concentrated. “The line creates very clearly the identification for voters that these are Democrats,” says the congressman.

In his town hall forums, Andrews often cites the Bush administration’s proclivity for using scare tactics to unhinge Democratic candidacies, presenting himself as a vigorous 50-year old in fighting shape who would be better suited than Lautenberg to repel GOP attacks.

Pallone disagrees.

“There’s no question the Bush administration will use whatever fear tactics they can,” he says. “That’s what they always do. But Lautenberg will be better able to deal with that. On his return to the Senate he was very quick to call the Bush administration into question regarding Iraq. He went after the administration, whereas Rob Andrews joined with Bush for a long time.”

Pallone tag teams with Lautenberg in primary battle, notes that he’s ‘unbossed’