Longtime Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was poised for an easy Democratic primary, until Rep. Rob Andrews jumped into the race at the last moment.

The emergence of Andrews, 50, of Haddon Heights, has provoked accusations of disloyalty from Lautenberg and from some of Andrews' House colleagues. Andrews had agreed to serve as co-chair of Lautenberg's reelection, before deciding this spring that the 84-year-old senator is vulnerable.

Where Lautenberg sees treachery, this Editorial Board sees healthy competition. Lautenberg doesn't own this seat. Incumbent or no, Andrews is a highly qualified candidate.

The beef against Andrews is that he filed for the Senate race days before the April 7 deadline, creating a messy situation in the Democratic primary for his House seat. His wife, Camille, stepped in as a placeholder candidate, depending upon whom party leaders select after the primary. Voters in the First Congressional District don't know whom they're voting for.

But that situation doesn't diminish Andrews' qualifications to be a senator. So New Jersey Democrats have a difficult choice to make. Not helping voters is the fact that Lautenberg has been dodging any debates on network TV.

In 24 years in the Senate, Lautenberg has been a reliably progressive vote on issues ranging from the environment to children's health insurance. However, Andrews has built a solid record in the House as a thoughtful legislator, and he would bring a fresh approach to the challenges facing New Jersey. For the Democratic nomination for Senate, The Inquirer endorses

ROBERT E. ANDREWS

.

In 20 years in the House, Andrews has proved himself to be an independent voice for South Jersey. He has been a deficit hawk in a Congress that allowed the national debt to increase more than 60 percent, to $9.4 trillion, under President Bush. He led the fight to stop the Army from dumping remnants of VX nerve gas in the Delaware River.

Lautenberg has criticized Andrews for his role in support of the Iraq war resolution in 2002. Not only did Andrews vote to authorize military force, he even co-wrote the measure and lobbied fellow Democrats.

But Lautenberg also supported the vote for war in 2002. He wasn't serving in the Senate at the time, but was campaigning again - after a brief retirement - because incumbent Bob Torricelli had self-destructed.

Lautenberg made clear at the time that he would have voted in favor of authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Both Andrews and Lautenberg now favor withdrawing U.S. forces, though Lautenberg contends he came to this realization sooner.

The third Democrat in the race is Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, 62, who gained national attention with his efforts to deputize local police to enforce immigration laws.

On the Republican ticket, former Rep. Dick Zimmer, 63, of Hunterdon County is making his second bid for the Senate. After serving six years in the House, he lost the Senate race in 1996 to Torricelli. Zimmer, now a lobbyist who says his positions dovetail with GOP presidential candidate John McCain, has more practical experience in Trenton and Washington than his opponents: State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, 52, a dentist from Montville, and Murray Sabrin, 61, a professor of finance at Ramapo College.

The Inquirer endorses

DICK ZIMMER

for the Republican nomination.

One area where Zimmer differs from McCain is the war in Iraq - Zimmer says troops should be withdrawn "as soon as we practically can." He favors extending the Bush tax cuts, which are due to expire in 2011.