With less than two weeks left in the edgy Democratic U.S. Senate primary, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews has unveiled a television ad that spotlights the age issue in his race against U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
In the 30-second commercial, Andrews says Lautenberg, who is 84, will be over 90 at the end of the term he seeks - and blames the talk of age on Lautenberg.
The male announcer says: "1982: One of the low points in New Jersey political history. Frank Lautenberg bases his campaign against Millicent Fenwick on her age. She's 72. Using not-so-veiled language, Lautenberg actually says it's OK for a man to make fun of a woman's age. Now, Lautenberg will be 91 at the end of his term. 91. Newspapers have said it's time for a change. It's hard when your words come back to haunt you, isn't it Mr. Lautenberg?"
Until yesterday, Andrews, 50, was using his own "not-so-veiled" language to point out Lautenberg's age, saying the senator was the product of a "tired old status quo" political establishment. Asked if those words applied to Lautenberg's age, Andrews flatly said they did not.
Lautenberg, born Jan. 23, 1924, would be 90 when the six-year term he seeks technically expires. Senators are typically sworn in the first week in January.
Lautenberg and his campaign have avoided talking about his age but are clearly sensitive to it. Staffers deflect questions and say he skis, walks at a brisk pace through Washington office buildings, tires them out during weekend campaigning trips, knows Jon Bon Jovi and likes techno-gadgets.
Responding to yesterday's ads, Lautenberg's campaign scrambled eight female leaders, including federal and state legislators, the head of a union and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey, to defend his record on women. They zeroed in on the part of the ad that says Lautenberg found it "OK" for a man to make fun of a woman's age, calling it "ridiculously false."
"As a woman, a widow and a grandmother, I will tell you that all these life experiences are much more important than my chronological age," said State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen). "I support Frank Lautenberg because he has the experience, the seniority and the progressive values to represent New Jersey."
Julie Roginsky, Lautenberg's campaign spokeswoman, issued a statement saying: "Andrews is desperate. He has trouble with the truth. He said he would support Sen. Lautenberg but he's running against him. He says that age was not an issue but now says it is."
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, has polled on Lautenberg's age. He said the "age issue is not enough to toss Frank Lautenberg out. There's just not enough meat there to push this in Andrews' favor."
He added that "when you get something that sounds as nasty as the tone of this ad does, it can backfire against the person who is launching the attack."
Murray said Democrats were especially turned off this year to party infighting as they watched the contest between their presidential primary candidates - U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.).
The air war in this race started April 14 - earlier and nastier than usual - with Lautenberg's running ads aligning Andrews with the Bush administration. Andrews cowrote the October 2002 Iraq War resolution but now opposes the war.
Ingrid Reed, who directs the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University, said the way the new ad blames Lautenberg for raising the age issue not only attacks his age but also shifts the focus to his personal values.
"In that context, it's more effective and it's more memorable," Reed said. "People will remember."
The most recent age attack against an incumbent U.S. senator was in Hawaii in 2006, when former U.S. Rep. Ed Case took on U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, 84, in the Democratic primary.
Case, 54 at the time, argued it was time to push out Akaka for a younger person who could accumulate seniority in the Senate before the inevitable departure of either Akaka or U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D., Hawaii), also in his 80s. Akaka beat Case by more than 10 percentage points, even though Akaka had been named one of the country's worst senators by Time Magazine.