In long-shot quest, Zimmer can’t count on the media

Even if the New Jersey print media industry was thriving, former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer would still probably be a long-shot in his quest for incumbent Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat.

But for a politician whose biggest problem this whole campaign cycle has been has lack of name recognition, the fact that most of the Garden State’s home-grown media outlets are on life support has made getting his name out there that much more difficult, Zimmer said today.

“In previous elections, I’d have Jim Goodman just bugging the hell out of me from The Trenton Times. I don’t believe I’ve been covered by the Trenton Times yet. Maybe the time I campaigned in Hamilton in Septemberfest, but I’m not sure about that,” he said in a phone interview today (Goodman was a casualty of Newhouse’s decision to combine the Statehouse bureaus of The Star-Ledger and Trenton Times last year).

Zimmer, who was plucked out of relative obscurity as a lobbyist in Washington to fill in for the beleaguered and three-week-old candidacy of Goya heir Andy Unanue, is severely trailing in the polls against Lautenberg. But that may have more to do with Zimmer’s visibility than Lautenberg’s winning campaign style. In a Monmouth University/Gannett poll released earlier this week, Lautenberg led 52 percent to 36 percent, but the most telling number with two weeks to the election at the time the poll was taken: 56 percent of voters still didn’t know who Dick Zimmer was.

Zimmer has received significant coverage in The Star-Ledger, but the reporter assigned to him, Robert Schwaneberg, is among the 40 percent of newsroom employees who have taken the paper’s buyout offer.

“I think Bob Schwaneberg is a terrific reporter. But not only is he taking the buyout, but he’s been covering the Wayne Bryant trial and a lot of different things,” said Zimmer.

The New York and Philadelphia television network affiliates aren’t in danger of closing anytime soon, but most have shown little interest in the statewide race (although they have made debate offers, which have been turned down by Lautenberg).

And, although they endorsed Lautenberg today, The New York Times has not written a single story about the U.S. Senate general election race. Zimmer said they plan one wrap-up on all the New Jersey federal races, and did write an editorial gently prodding Lautenberg to debate, but that’s it.

“One of the editors of the New York Times who interviewed me for their editorial thought I was still a member of Congress,” said Zimmer.

That leaves Zimmer running against a well-known, wealthy incumbent, while he has little free help raising his profile and little money — $453,368 as of the last report, with $299,245 in debt – to boost his profile.

And Lautenberg, in arguably a common-sense move, has declined most debates with Zimmer, except a radio debate Tuesday night and one NJN debate Saturday night before the election.

But Zimmer, who prefers the term “underdog,” to “long-shot,” can’t be accused of being merely a Republican placeholder on the ballot. His retail campaign schedule is full.

He was supposed to show up to a street fair in Teaneck today that was cancelled due to weather conditions, so he used the time to prep for Tuesday’s debate. Later today he’ll be in Ewing for its Community Day, and tomorrow he has six events planned. Still, Zimmer acknowledged the polls are discouraging.

“Sure they are, but I’ve been in politics long enough to see amazing comebacks,” he said. “I’m running as hard as I did when I declared my candidacy in April. I’m doing everything to my ability and with the amount of resources we’ve been able to accumulate to win this race.”

There is a bright spot for Zimmer: he was endorsed by the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, and the Courier-Post today. But there’s also at least one more complication.

“Obviously as a candidate who’s less known, my success depends a lot on strength at the top of the ticket,” said Zimmer. In this case, the top of the ticket is trailing in the New Jersey polls just as badly as he is.

“Part of my thinking in getting into the race was that John McCain would run strong in New Jersey, and I’m still hopeful he can close the gap,” he said.

Ultimately, Zimmer needs a political reversal of epic proportions to pull off a victory, and that’s not likely to come out of two debates just days before the election. Some Democratic insiders who wondered why Zimmer would run in such a difficult environment wondered if his lobbying firm didn’t stand to benefit after November.

Zimmer wasn’t offended at the implication, but he laughed loudly.

“That’s the way New Jersey Democrats think. It never crossed my mind…. I can’t even conceive the kind of clients that will go to my firm as a consequence of that,” he said. “That is amazing. It’s the reason I could never become a Democrat. I couldn’t bear to think about politics in those terms.”

In long-shot quest, Zimmer can’t count on the media