In a highly contentious debate Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez called Republican Bob Hugin a greedy CEO and lackey for President Trump, while Hugin branded the Democratic incumbent as a corrupt career politician.

"Bob Menendez has failed and embarrassed us," Hugin, former CEO of the biotech company Celgene, said to begin the debate.

"Bob Menendez is going to try to make this a debate about Donald Trump. That's because he doesn't want to talk about anything about his record of corruption and failure."

Menendez countered that the Trump administration is threatening "everything we have fought for and won."

The debate, held at a TV studio in Newark, came on the same day as a new Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that Menendez had a narrow 5 percentage point lead over Hugin, who has spent more than $20 million of his own money on the race.

Menendez is seeking a third six-year term after having survived a federal bribery trial last year. The senator had been accused of accepting gifts from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for advancing the donor's personal and financial interests.

The judge declared a mistrial and later acquitted him of some of the charges, and the Justice Department dropped the case. Nevertheless, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a bipartisan reprimand in April.

"I understand there are people in my state who are disappointed, and I apologize to them," Menendez said Wednesday, but he asked voters to assess the totality of his service.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, Democratic incumbent, at left. Republican challenger Bob Hugin at right.
Julio Cortes/AP
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, Democratic incumbent, at left. Republican challenger Bob Hugin at right.

He pointed to his role in passing the Affordable Care Act and bringing home billions of dollars in aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

New Jersey voters haven't elected a Republican to the Senate in 46 years, but the cloud of the corruption trial has diminished Menendez's standing. Just 28 percent of likely voters, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Wednesday, view him favorably, making him less popular than Trump in the Garden State. Among independent likely voters, just 18 percent have a favorable impression of the senator, the survey found.

Hugin has lent his campaign $26.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings, while Menendez has raised about $11 million. Outside groups have spent about $9 million.

Hugin this month began airing ads that resurfaced unsubstantiated allegations, first lodged in 2012, that Menendez had slept with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. The FBI investigated the allegations and could not confirm them.

Hugin defended the ad on Wednesday, saying that the campaign was a job interview, not a trial, and that voters deserved to know about the FBI inquiry.

"It's a lie, Bob," Menendez said of the claims. "You know it's a lie."

For his part, the senator accused Hugin of gouging cancer patients as CEO of Celgene. "He preyed on the most vulnerable … because he wanted to make more profit."

Hugin said the company had invested heavily in research and development, and that "cancer is not cheap."

He described himself as an independent Republican who opposes Trump on offshore drilling and the president's failure to improve New Jersey's infrastructure.

"I'm a leader," he said. "I'm not a follower."

Menendez also noted that in the 1990s, Hugin, a Princeton University alumnus, fought to stop women from joining a social club where he'd been president at the school.

"My views have matured and changed," Hugin said, adding that Menendez had voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

Addressing Wednesday's news that pipe bombs had been sent to former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, CNN's New York offices and others, Menendez proclaimed Trump the "divider in chief" who had created a "toxic environment."

For his part, Hugin condemned violence and incivility in politics.