Anxious Allies Aiding Booker in Senate Bid

The New York Times

October 7, 2013


Cory A. Booker, a Democrat, campaigned in East Orange, N.J., on Saturday.


Cory A. Booker is an undisputed star of a new generation of African-American leaders, electrifying liberal audiences with his oratory and charming the social media set with his digital savvy.

But the Senate campaign Mr. Booker, a Democrat, is running in New Jersey — at times sputtering, unfocused and entangled in seemingly frivolous skirmishes over Twitter messages involving a stripper — has unnerved his supporters, who thought that a robust and unblemished victory over his Republican opponent, Steve Lonegan, would catapult him onto the national stage.

As his allies move to shore up what was supposed to be a painless path to Congress, the biggest and wealthiest of them, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will start spending more than $1 million on Monday to broadcast television commercials on Mr. Booker’s behalf, a vast sum to pour into a single candidacy.

With the special Senate election next week, the late campaign push is trying to exploit unhappiness over the government shutdown to promote Mr. Booker, Newark’s mayor, as a problem solver who eschews the kind of hard-line partisanship crippling the Capitol. “He is a solutions guy rather than an ideologue,” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview.

Mayor Booker, in an acknowledgment that he can no longer ignore Mr. Lonegan, is now unleashing his own assault, rolling out his first attack ad and pummeling his opponent in a debate that was broadcast on Sunday.

Mr. Booker’s bumpy campaign and shrinking lead in the polls are all the more unsettling to Democratic Party officials because Mr. Lonegan is a political anomaly in the blue-hued state: a Tea Party conservative who describes himself as a “radical,” opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, cheers the current shutdown of the federal government and has relied on polarizing right-wing figures like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry as campaign surrogates.

Mr. Lonegan, despite his ideological alignment, appears to have tapped into lingering doubts about whether Mr. Booker can translate his outsize, self-promotional persona, so popular with the Democratic base, into the rigors of a highly disciplined campaign.

Mr. Booker, first elected mayor in 2006, has stumbled into several distracting sideshows this year. He has said he welcomed online speculation that he might be gay (but has said he is not), he playfully told a stripper that he loved her during a private chat on Twitter and he has battled reports, which he denies, that he exaggerated stories about down-and-out residents he had met in Newark.

In a series of searing ads and memorable zingers, Mr. Lonegan has mocked Mr. Booker as a celebrity-obsessed dilettante who can rarely be found in the city he governs, once pointing out that while he himself enjoys “a good Scotch and a cigar,” Mr. Booker acknowledges he indulges in manicures and pedicures.

A radio commercial hammered Mr. Booker, 44, for traveling to the West Coast a few weeks ago to attend a fund-raiser with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck after murders had spiked in Newark, declaring: “While you’re listening to this ad, Cory Booker is in California, getting as far away as he can from his own city’s problems.”

During the debate on Sunday, Mr. Lonegan suggested that Mr. Booker spent every waking hour on Twitter, where the mayor has 1.4 million followers and unabashedly exchanges messages with strangers day and night.

“We need a leader, not a tweeter,” Mr. Lonegan, 57, cracked.

Nobody is predicting a Booker loss in the special election. But polling that once showed a blowout suggests a tighter contest. A survey of likely Democratic and Republican voters, conducted by Monmouth University and released on Oct. 1, shows Mr. Booker ahead by 13 percentage points over Mr. Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, a small suburb in Bergen County.

“This is much closer than anybody thought it should be,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, citing Mr. Lonegan’s conservative social positions, Mr. Booker’s widespread name recognition and the state’s history of electing Democratic senators. New Jersey has not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

“This should be a 20-point lead and not anything less than that,” Mr. Murray said.

Mr. Booker’s pollster, Joel Benenson, called his candidate’s lead “pretty strong” and in line with the Election Day performance of past Democrats in New Jersey.

The unusual timing of the special election to fill the seat held by the recently deceased Senator Frank R. Lautenberg — on Oct. 16, a Wednesday — means that voter turnout is likely to be exceedingly low and the outcome even less predictable than usual.

The Monmouth survey contained evidence that Mr. Lonegan’s strategy of portraying Mr. Booker as a showboat, rather than a workhorse, has found an audience. A plurality of 45 percent said they believed that his Senate run was motivated more by a desire to seek the national stage than an eagerness to work for the people of New Jersey.

“Lonegan has successfully made the race about Booker,” said State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, a Democrat. “The focus is on Cory’s warts.”

Mr. Booker, newly aggressive after showing a reluctance to attack his opponent over the past few weeks, repeatedly assailed Mr. Lonegan as “extreme” and “Tea Party fringe” in Sunday’s debate, predicting that his brand of Republicanism would reinforce the deep divisions that plague Congress.

“My opponent is going to make everything wrong with Washington even worse,” he said.

Mr. Bloomberg’s TV ad amplifies that message: “In a divided Washington,” a narrator says, Mr. Booker is a “senator to get things done.”

In an interview, Mr. Bloomberg said “every American should be upset” over the gridlock, and praised Mr. Booker for working closely with the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie.

Mr. Bloomberg, whose “super PAC,” Independence USA, is bankrolling the commercials, said Mr. Booker had shown a rare knack for using data, rather than ideology, to grapple with seemingly intractable urban problems like tracking handguns. He likened him to a former New York City mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“He changed the zeitgeist from ‘Newark is ungovernable’ to ‘Newark is governable,’ ” said Mr. Bloomberg, who has been a longtime admirer of Mr. Booker.

It is unclear, however, whether the state’s electorate sees Mr. Booker’s record in the same light. Under his watch, Newark has attracted new businesses like Pitney Bowes, a mail management company, and out-of-town largess from wealthy tech leaders, like the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. But Mr. Booker raised taxes, and violent crime has remained largely unabated.

With 10 days remaining until the election, both candidates scrambled to energize their followers, dropping in on a doughnut-filled lawn party (Mr. Lonegan) and a hair salon (Mr. Booker). Mr. Lonegan stuck with his theme of an unwieldy federal government strangling the country; Mr. Booker again railed against Mr. Lonegan as almost laughably out of step with the state.

But everywhere they went, conversations seemed to drift toward the race’s marquee name: Mr. Booker.

In interviews, even those who said they planned to vote for him expressed reservations about his experience and ambitiousness, arguing that he had not yet truly proved himself in Newark.

Kenneth Paige, a 54-year-old barber in East Orange, where Mr. Booker campaigned over the weekend, cited the continued problem with crime in Newark.

“What did he really do?” said Mr. Paige, a Democrat, who indicated that he would vote for his party’s nominee nonetheless.

In Union, where Mr. Booker stopped a few hours later, Elaine Murphy, 60, said she was breaking with her party to vote for Mr. Lonegan.

Mr. Booker, she said, “had to fix Newark before he spread his wings out.” Her friends in Newark, she said, tell her that “he hasn’t done anything great for them.”

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commented 2013-11-24 09:05:36 -0800
Thank you