In one way, Republican Dick Zimmer’s Senate campaign against Frank Lautenberg looks remarkably like Rob Andrews’s ill-fated Democratic primary challenge to the incumbent Senator.
For the second week in a row, Zimmer held a press conference to challenge Lautenberg to televised debates – including two this month. This time, Zimmer stood with State Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr., who engaged in two June debate with Sen. Bob Menendez during their race in 2006.
“If Senator Menendez could debate then, Senator. Lautenberg can certainly debate now,” said Kean.
But Zimmer’s campaign contrasts with Andrews’s in that Zimmer does not believe that Lautenberg’s age will prove to be his vulnerability. When asked whether Lautenberg, 84, was too old to effectively serve another term in office, Zimmer said “No, not in terms of years.”
“There are Senators who are quite advanced in age who have been quite effective spokespeople and advocates for their state. Senator Lautenberg has not been an effective advocate in our state,” he said. “That’s the quarrel I have with him. It’s not about his age.”
The majority of respondents to a recent Quinnipiac poll, however, felt otherwise. Fifty-four percent said that the Senaor is “too old to effectively serve another 6 year term.”
Zimmer said Lautenberg had already turned down a debate invitation from the New Jersey Association of Counties for Friday.
“Unfortunately, Sen. Lautenberg has announced that he’s unavailable, this despite the fact that his spokesperson said last week that debates are an ‘integral part of any campaign.’”
It was at the Association of Counties meeting two years ago that Kean, after avoiding sharing a stage with Menendez, made his infamous escape attempt from the media into an elevator.
Of course, pushing Lautenberg to debate did not work as a strategy for Andrews. Ultimately, Lautenberg agreed to just two debates days before the election – one radio debate and one televised debate on NJN on a Friday evening. Zimmer, however, insisted that he’s not issuing the challenges to score political points.
“I’m not going to judge what Rob Andrews’s motives were, but this is not a political tactic,” he said. “This is something that Frank Lautenberg and I both owe to the voters of New Jersey, so it’s something I’m going to be talking about in the interest of good government.”
Zimmer also pointed out that political consultant Steve DeMicco, who worked for Menendez two years ago, wrote an eloquently worded letter to Kean explaining why televised debates were so important to the process.
DeMicco referred comments to Lautenberg spokeswoman Julie Roginsky, who did not address the June debate question specifically but issued a statement that made it clear that we’re not likely to see any debates until closer to the election.
“This is a press conference held by two Bush Republican clones, both of whom in their respective statewide campaigns have offered the voters nothing but support for failed Bush Administration policies,” she said. “There is indeed a vast difference between Dick Zimmer's staunch support of George Bush's ideology and Senator Lautenberg's progressive and effective leadership on behalf of New Jersey and we look forward to debating these issues in the fall."
As for DeMicco’s two-year-old letter, Roginsky said “DeMicco’s name is not on the ballot.”
Today’s press conference comes on the heels of the above-mentioned Quinnipiac poll that showed Zimmer running behind Lautenberg 47%-38%. A Rasmussen Reports poll released on Monday, however, showed Lautenberg and Zimmer in a dead heat.
An analysis by Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray downplayed the significance of polls this early in the process – at least as far as determining what the outcome of the election will be. But he said that one thing is clear: “A Republican who stands a chance of winning statewide needs to start off with a broader base of support than the party appears to have now.”
That may mean appealing to voters in traditionally Democratic areas who have been turning out in far greater numbers that their Republican counterparts in suburban and rural areas – like Zimmer’s home base in Hunterdon County.
Zimmer, who was born in Newark and grew up in the rim suburbs around it, said that he recognizes the need to appeal to voters in traditionally Democratic areas. On Tuesday, for instance, he attended the Essex County Republicans’ reorganization meeting.
“I explained how my father came from Newark and my mother came from East Orange, and how I lived in Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, South Orange and West Orange,” he said. “And I told them that Essex will be a very important part of my strategy, as will other counties with big cities.”