Recent polls on the U.S. Senate race confirm what New Jersey political observers already knew: Dick Zimmer is in a tough situation.
If Zimmer, the Republican nominee, is to have any hope of defeating Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg in November, he'll need to capitalize on each and every gaffe Lautenberg makes on the campaign trail. But that will be difficult, since Lautenberg has laid low, which experts say is meant to not risk upsetting the state's natural Democratic inclinations.
The status quo won't likely work for Zimmer. Although he's running against an 84-year-old incumbent lawmaker with lukewarm approval ratings, Zimmer still trails by margins from the high single digits to low double digits in most polls. One poll from last month, however, showed the two in a statistical dead heat. A Gannett/Monmouth University survey released today showed Zimmer 11 points behind Lautenberg with registered voters and eight points behind him with likely voters. Zimmer has little money — only $411,000 in the bank to Lautenberg's nearly $1.3 million. On top of that, the state's Democratic base is excited over Barack Obama's presidential candidacy.
Recognizing this conundrum, Zimmer has tried to lure Lautenberg out of the safer confines of the Senate chambers. Immediately after winning the Republican nomination, he challenged Lautenberg to a series of debates. On Wednesday, he announced a planned series of town hall appearances beginning today, inviting Lautenberg to attend. And today he enlisted the help of Randy Mastro, a former Deputy Mayor of New York City in the administration of Rudy Giuliani, to be his "Special Counsel" who will be "tasked with facilitating debates between Zimmer and Senator Frank Lautenberg."
So how will that be different from Rep. Rob Andrews's unsuccessful attempt to engage Lautenberg in frequent debates?
"Rob Andrews got into the race pretty late and Frank Lautenberg was able to run out the clock," said Zimmer. "We are very serious about working with the media outlets to make these debates actually come about. Randy Mastro is a very capable person who will help us achieve that."
Zimmer has held several press conference during the doldrums of summer, but they've recently attracted scant media attention (at a press conference last week in front of a foreclosed home, only PolitickerNJ.com and NJN showed up). Zimmer has milked the controversy over the Lautenberg's initial plan to purchase 40 Bruce Springsteen tickets at face value and distribute them to donors who contributed $1,500 to his campaign, however.
But analysts say that Zimmer will need more than one small controversy to gain traction on Lautenberg.
"As lukewarm as voters are towards Frank Lautenberg right now, Dick Zimmer's going to need a lot of ammunition. This (ticket) thing is really a drop in the bucket right now," said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. "You probably won't see anything bold or new from Frank Lautenberg during this election unless Dick Zimmer can make some waves. But he won't be able to make waves unless Frank Lautenberg makes mistakes."
Moreover, Murray said, the fact that only 64 percent of Republicans polled were willing to commit to voting for Zimmer shows that he's late to shore up his base.
"64% is a warning sign for him that he still has to work his base before he can turn to those independent voters to try to sway him to his cause," he said.
But Zimmer reads the poll results differently than the pollster. He noted that he's already ahead with independents, and that Republicans will warm to his cause once they learn more about him.
Zimmer said that Lautenberg is indeed vulnerable, since this is the sixth consecutive poll showing his re-election support under 50 percent.
"There's only one other incumbent Democrat in the entire country that's below 50 percent, and that's [U.S. Sen.] Mary Landrieu [of Louisiana], who everyone knows is in very deep trouble," he said. "I think it's terrific that I'm within single digits of a 24-year incumbent who is universally well-known while I have hardly started to introduce myself to the voters."
Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that Zimmer's campaign "has not been able to get off the ground," as evidenced by two recent fundraisers for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) held in New Jersey.
"All the signs from national Republicans are that they intend to support no resources to New Jersey. The fact that Mitch McConnell raised money for himself and not Dick Zimmer … It's a big deal to come to a state where you're ostensibly challenging someone and take money out of that state for another race. Especially when you consider McConnell has raised $15 million and Zimmer has raised less than a million." (McConnell did headline a Washington fundraiser for Zimmer last week).
Lautenberg spokeswoman Julie Roginsky said that the Senator has been active on the campaign trail, though he's had to balance campaigning with his Senate duties. She noted that in the past two weeks, he's campaigned in Irvington and attended the Building and Trades Conference in Atlantic City. He plans to campaign in Hudson and Passaic counties tomorrow if the Senate is not in session.
"His first job is to be a Senator, but when he's home he has been campaigning," she said. "Senator Lautenberg has been consistently ahead in every poll taken since this election began because he has been standing strong for New Jersey throughout his career. We are confident that on election day, Senator Lautenberg will have earned re-election to the United States."