U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews, in their final debate before Tuesday's New Jersey primary election for the Democratic nomination for senator, clashed yesterday over their effectiveness in Washington and their early support for the Iraq war.
Lautenberg's age, 84, also resurfaced as an issue. Lautenberg proclaimed himself "certainly fit," while Andrews accused him of using a "double standard," having impugned Sen. Millicent Fenwick as unfit at age 72 in his first Senate campaign in 1982.
Lautenberg criticized Andrews for reneging on his promise to support the incumbent senator for reelection, and Andrews accused Lautenberg of failing to do enough to help New Jersey residents struggling to make ends meet.
The third Democratic candidate in the race, Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, said neither Lautenberg nor Andrews had accomplished much in Washington and both deserved to be replaced.
Andrews and Lautenberg found few substantive issues to disagree about, but assailed each other for their initial support for the war.
"Congressman Andrews stood shoulder to shoulder with the president on the war resolution . . . and he helped market this war," Lautenberg said.
"The senator said, 'I'm on the president's train,' " during the run-up to war, Andrews said.
All three candidates said they supported a prompt withdrawal from Iraq.
The televised debate was the candidates' second face-off in as many days, following a radio debate on Thursday.
Andrews, 50, is running an uphill battle to unseat Lautenberg, who has a comfortable lead in public-opinion polls.
Andrews made a last-minute decision in early April to challenge Lautenberg. Despite a sizable campaign war chest and an aggressive campaign, he has struggled to gain recognition and support outside his South Jersey base.
Andrews had previously endorsed Lautenberg, and his abrupt turnabout has made him something of a pariah with many party leaders and his Washington colleagues.
Last night, Andrews cited his vigorous campaign and said he had personally reached 45,000 voters, while Lautenberg chided him for trying to "set the Guinness record for handshakes across New Jersey."
Both candidates said they wanted to increase Americans' access to health care, use more nuclear power to reduce reliance on foreign oil, and crack down on gun violence. Andrews said he supported a gas-tax holiday, to be paid for by a windfall-profits tax on oil companies.
Lautenberg is a founder and former president of Automatic Data Processing Inc. who served three terms in the Senate from 1983 to 2001. He returned to Washington in 2003 to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli, who did not seek re-election after being severely admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for taking gifts from a campaign donor.
Andrews, of Haddon Heights, was first elected to his House seat in 1990, representing Camden, Gloucester and Burlington Counties, after a stint as a Camden County freeholder. He is a lawyer.
Cresitello, 61, has been mayor of Morristown since 2005 and is best known for his hard-line stance against illegal immigrants there. He pushed without success to deputize local police to enforce federal immigration laws. He also ran against Lautenberg in his first bid for the Senate, in the 1982 primary.
Though Lautenberg's age remains a concern among a significant portion of the electorate, he led Andrews by 49 percent to 19 percent among Democratic primary voters, with Cresitello supported by 7 percent, in a May 20 poll by Rasmussen Reports. The poll of 500 likely Democratic voters had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face the winner of the Republican primary election, which includes former U.S. Rep. Richard Zimmer, State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, and Murray Sabrin, a finance professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
New Jersey voters have not elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford P. Case in 1972.