With less than two months to go until the election, no debate dates have been set between Sen. Frank Lautenberg and his challenger, former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer.
“There’s a deafening silence on the other end, which seems to be the pattern of the Lautenberg campaign,” said Randy Mastro, a former New York City Deputy Mayor and Assistant U.S. Attorney under Rudy Giuliani who was brought onto the Zimmer campaign as a special counsel to facilitate debates between Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park) and Zimmer. “It’s hard to understand why Frank Lautenberg doesn’t want to debate the issues of importance to New Jersey voters with Dick Zimmer.”
The day after a relatively narrow victory in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, Zimmer held a news conference in Trenton challenging Lautenberg to a series of debates, bringing up Lautenberg’s quest in his first Senate campaign in 1982 to debate Republican opponent U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick “morning, noon and night.”
Since then, Mastro said, Zimmer has accepted “more than a dozen” debate invitations from various organizations and media outlets. Lautenberg, to his knowledge, has accepted none.
“It shows a fundamental disrespect to the voters of New Jersey for Frank Lautenberg to refuse to debate Dick Zimmer on the important issues of the day,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews made the debate over debates a large theme in his spring primary campaign against Lautenberg, and wound up getting only a couple joint editorial board appearances and two broadcast debates just days before the election: one on a radio station and one on public television on a Friday night.
So if frequent calls for debates didn’t work for Andrews, who in June only got 38% of the vote to Lautenberg’s 62%, why will it work for Zimmer?
“Because he will come to appreciate that New Jersey voters are demanding it. And when he comes to appreciate that, he will hopefully do the right thing and debate,” said Mastro. “I’m not disputing your characterization of what he did in the Democratic primary season. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. It’s going to catch up to him.”
Zimmer, who’s strapped for Cash compared to the Lautenberg campaign, which spent $5 million against Andrews and has the ability to self-fund, has had a hard time catching up in the polls. He typically has trailed Lautenberg in the high single or low double digits. A Bergen Record poll released today showed him trailing Lautenberg by eight points. Politicker.com’s Pindell Report rates the seat as “likely Democratic.”
Lautenberg spokeswoman Julie Roginsky argued that Lautenberg had pledged to debate Zimmer since immediately after winning the primary.
“If Randy Mastro was paying attention, he would have read and realized that Frank Lautenberg said from the day after the primary that he would debate his Republican opponent in the fall, and more than once,” said Roginsky. “But we’re not going to debate debates with a Bush operative parachuted in here to try to salvage Dick Zimmer’s failing campaign.”
Zimmer Communications Director Kristen Hainen said that Mastro never worked for Bush.
"The Lautenberg campaign's retort to Randy Mastro is as accurate as their commitment to debates," she said.