Republican U.S. Senate nominee Dick Zimmer launched New Jersey's general-election campaign yesterday by calling for debates and promising not to attack U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's age or character.

At the same time, battle lines were drawn in races for three open U.S. House seats, two of them in South Jersey. Though Republicans have traditionally held two of the seats, some experts say Democrats haven't been in a better position in recent history to wage an all-out fight for them.

And although those federal offices topped the ballot in Tuesday's primary, they will move down a spot in November, making way for the presidential race between U.S. Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D., Ill.).

Obama and McCain began talking yesterday about a series of town-hall debates, but Lautenberg's campaign showed an early reluctance to engage with Zimmer by promptly turning down his request for a June 13 face-off.

In a statement, spokeswoman Julie Roginsky said that the Lautenberg campaign believed "debates are an integral part of any campaign," but that "we will not be debating debates with our opponent."

Lautenberg's campaign appears headed on the same path it took in the primary, which involves his speaking through surrogates and turning down most debates.

The four-term senator appeared in a single public-television debate with his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews. His campaign refused offers from network affiliates for debates in the primary.

Zimmer, a former U.S. representative known as a persistent campaigner, said he planned to pursue Lautenberg on the issues. But he said he would not attack the 84-year-old Lautenberg on his age, a theme that had been raised by Andrews, a Camden County Democrat.

"I'm not going to bring up the age issue," said Zimmer, 63. "The issue is effectiveness."

To that, the Democratic State Committee responded with a statement saying Lautenberg has been effective.

Asked if he would attack Lautenberg's character, standard strategy in New Jersey elections, Zimmer said, "I have no quarrels with Frank Lautenberg's character."

New Jersey voters haven't put a Republican in the Senate in 36 years, but Lautenberg's campaign is wasting no time raising cash, scheduling a fund-raiser for June 23 in Newark, N.J.

Already committed to big spending in New Jersey's U.S. House races this year, Democrats have been buoyed by victories in three special House elections in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, increasing the Democratic majority to 236-199.

Peter Woolley, director of the PublicMind Polling Institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said State Sen. John Adler (D., Camden) and Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D., Union) were in good positions to win open House seats in traditionally Republican districts.

The two had no primaries, while Republicans in each district fought it out, depleting resources.

"Registration has been trending Democratic, and in both places they have a candidate advantage" because of financing, name recognition, and the uncontested primaries, Woolley said.

Stender is set to face State Sen. Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon) in the Seventh District.

"Even though people say they have a great deal of affection for Lance, if there was that much affection for him, there wouldn't have been a seven-way primary going on," Woolley said. In 2006, Stender lost by only 1 percentage point to U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson, who is retiring.

Adler will face Republican Chris Myers, the mayor of Medford and a Lockheed Martin vice president, in the Third District.

Myers, who was unknown even to GOP leaders in Burlington County a few months ago, won in Burlington but finished the primary third in the Ocean County end of the district.

As results were counted Tuesday night, Adler challenged Myers to a debate, and yesterday Myers accepted. The two camps plan to work out the details.

Foreshadowing fireworks, Myers yesterday wrote Adler a letter chiding the Democratic Party for mailing Republican voters pamphlets that trashed him.

"Your shameful meddling in the primary and negative mailers distorting my record in Medford backfired - big time," the letter said.

One contest that will happen behind closed doors is for the House seat held by Andrews, who promised not to seek reelection during his battle against Lautenberg. The First District includes parts of Camden, Gloucester and Burlington Counties.

Andrews' wife, Camille Spinello Andrews, was on Tuesday's ballot but has agreed to let party leaders appoint a candidate to one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation. Leaders promise a candidate will be named soon. That candidate will face prison minister Dale Glading, the GOP nominee.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.