Assemblyman Rick Merkt (R-Mendham) wants six debates with the two other Republican gubernatorial primary candidates – one for every week left of the primary.
The other candidates, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, both receive matching funds from the state, which requires them to participate in two televised debates sponsored by the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). Merkt, who did not raise the $340,000 necessary to qualify for the funds, can not participate in the ELEC debates.
Merkt said that the state’s voters should have more than two chances to evaluate the candidates.
“This is no time for a ‘beauty contest’ primary in which a candidate’s wealth or celebrity decides the nomination,” he said. “The stakes are way too high for New Jersey to put up with an inexperienced Governor for the next four years.”
Merkt said he would agree to a debate “any time, anywhere, and with any format.”
Christie spokesman Bill Stepien issued a statement that agreed with Merkt in principle, but did not specifically commit to six debates.
“Getting out in front of as many voters as we can to talk about key issues and positions is an important and healthy part of this process. Chris is open to as many debates, forums and town halls as possible,” he said. “It’s why Chris committed to each and every county convention to get the opportunity talk to rank and file Republican activists all over the state. It’s why we held two open town halls just last week, and have plans for more. And it’s why Chris called for the inclusion of Assemblyman Merkt in all of the upcoming debates.”
Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftan said that Christie’s town hall appearances reminded him of former President Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign strategy: pack rooms with supporters and then let them ask questions.
“He can only do Nixon style controlled events like the one he did in Parsippany,” he said.
Shaftan said that Lonegan would agree not only to six debates, but 21 – one for each county in the state — providing that Christie participates.
“We’d be happy to do that as long as the invisible man shows up,” he said, arguing that Christie, the presumed frontrunner, had avoided making joint appearances and debating with Lonegan throughout the campaign. “Chris Christie is a big man when he’s got the US Attorney’s office and FBI behind him, but he’s not man enough to step into a room and debate other Republicans.”