When a citizen at a Republican forum this month asked U.S. Senate candidate Anne Evans Estabrook where she stood on the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms, she said she supported a waiting period for gun purchases.
What she did next landed her on the Internet.
For 24 seconds, she looked through her notes before saying, "Oh, and the criminal background check."
Opponent Murray Sabrin's campaign videotaped the moment and put it on his Web site and YouTube, transforming the ho-hum primary into a heated campaign. The third Republican candidate, State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio of Morris County, also has taken shots at Estabrook in the past days.
Yesterday, her campaign manager attributed Estabrook's hesitation to her not being a "career politician."
"You have a career politician in Joe Pennacchio and a perennial candidate in Murray Sabrin," campaign manager Mark Duffy said.
The clip captures a few minutes from the Woodbridge Republican Club meeting Feb. 18. Sabrin put the video on his Web site Monday, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee then began e-mailing the clip to just about everyone on its lists, pumping up the hit number to more than 3,000 last night.
"We set up a video contrast of someone committed to conservative issues for 30 years with someone who doesn't know where she stands," said George Ajjan, spokesman for the Sabrin campaign.
One political analyst said yesterday that the brief clip could be "devastating" to Estabrook, a wealthy developer from Spring Lake.
"This is absolutely unexplainable," said New Jersey GOP operative Thom Ammirato, a veteran of North Jersey campaigns who does not have a candidate in this primary. "It shows we have a candidate with a lot of money and not a lot of experience."
Ammirato said the party needed "to sit these candidates down and school them and make sure they understand the issues and have enough experience in public speaking because these things can become devastating."
The whole affair has Republicans concerned about the possibility of a Democratic-backed television ad with that clip in the fall campaign if Estabrook survives the primary to face Democratic incumbent Frank R. Lautenberg.
Democrats aren't saying what they will do next, but Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was clearly enjoying himself. After circulating Sabrin's video of Estabrook on Tuesday, he circulated an amended version yesterday, saying in a statement that "the video's on us. You can supply your own jokes and popcorn."
The Democrats' video shifts between Estabrook's gun gap and Republican Jeanine Pirro's gaffe in 2005. Announcing she was running against U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York, Pirro spent 30 seconds looking for a page of her speech. The widely circulated clip helped depress Pirro's fund-raising, and she eventually quit the race.
The Democrats' video is tagged with the line: "When you believe in nothing, it's hard to say anything." Crickets chirp in the background.
Sabrin's campaign cut new videos as well, including one that says Estabrook gave money to Democrats; the Halloween movie theme music plays in the background.
Estabrook has given generously to candidates in her own party, according to campaign-finance reports.
"Anne Estabrook is a lifelong Republican who has contributed or raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party," said Duffy, her campaign manager.
"Murray Sabrin is doing what Murray Sabrin does best," he added, "and that's attacking the best Republican to defeat the Democrats in November."
Sabrin and the Democrats aren't the only ones going after Estabrook.
Pennacchio filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission a week ago, contending that she lent her campaign $1.6 million, which would allow her opponents to raise more money than usually permitted.
That rule kicks in when a candidate reaches a state threshold. In New Jersey, it's $830,000.
Duffy said that Pennacchio's allegation was "baseless and bogus," and that the state senator had not even checked the rules or records first. Duffy said Estabrook was under the threshold because she lent $800,000 to her primary campaign and $800,000 to her general-election campaign.
The FEC rejected Pennacchio's complaint, saying that it needed technical corrections and that he was free to refile it.
Pennacchio said Estabrook had publicized her campaign loans in an effort to frighten him and Sabrin out of the race.
"Basically, she's telling party leadership she will put in whatever it takes," he said. "If she plans on putting in a lot more - because she has a lot of catching up to do, as you can see by the video - it's not fair to myself and my opponent."
Her wealth "ain't scaring me away," he added.
All this came as Fairleigh Dickinson University released a poll yesterday in which more than 80 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they had never heard of these three candidates.
To see the video of Anne Evans Estabrook, go to http://go.philly.com/njsenateEndText