NJ's US Senate candidates debate

October 29, 2008 7:41:20 PM PDT
Democrat Frank Lautenberg painted Republican Dick Zimmer as a clone of the Bush administration, and Zimmer accused the incumbent senator of failing to avert the current economic crisis as the two met in a live radio debate Wednesday, less than a week before Election Day. In the first of two scheduled debates between the two U.S. Senate candidates, each tried to blame the other for a litany of current problems facing residents and businesses. They clashed over the policies of their respective parties and their association with special-interest groups, among other topics, some suggested in questions phoned in by listeners.

Zimmer said he hoped to replace Lautenberg because "he has failed to do anything to avert the terrible economic crisis that is decimating people's savings, failed to do anything significant to deal with the issues of energy costs and energy independence."

Lautenberg repeatedly invoked Bush's name, seeking to associate Zimmer's policies with those of the very unpopular current administration.

"On Jan. 20, George Bush will no longer be president," replied Zimmer, a former member of the House of Representatives. "I did not hesitate to vote against my own party when I thought it was acting fiscally irresponsibly."

Zimmer repeatedly attacked Lautenberg's voting record, accusing the senator of agreeing to a federal formula that has New Jersey paying more into a highway trust fund than it gets back, and of adding $1.5 billion in earmarks for the Washington subway system to a $13 billion Amtrak funding bill. He later accused Lautenberg of voting against a bill to reallocate $1 million to children's health care rather than fund a "hippie museum" in Woodstock, N.Y.

Lautenberg said it is disingenuous to isolate single votes on bills that are often multifaceted.

"This thing was all encompassed in a giant budget," said Lautenberg. "One has to look at the larger picture. Have I been helpful in bringing money to this state of ours? The answer has to be yes."

The candidates also traded barbs on their affiliation with special interests, with Lautenberg identifying Zimmer as a Washington lobbyist and Zimmer saying Lautenberg has accepted campaign contributions and attended receptions hosted by lobbying groups.

When Lautenberg asked Zimmer to take a pledge not to return to lobbying, Zimmer, 64, shot back, "By the time I finish my one or two terms in the Senate, I'll be ready to retire so I won't have to return to lobbying."

Lautenberg, 84-year-old the Democrat who has been in the U.S. Senate for four six-year terms, has maintained a comfortable lead in polls throughout the campaign despite concerns about his age.

And he has enjoyed a significant money advantage. Lautenberg had $921,574 cash on hand at the start of the month, compared to Zimmer's $435,362, according to the most recent campaign filings.

If he wins, Lautenberg would become the first New Jerseyan elected to serve five Senate terms. He is already the third-oldest member of Congress, and would be 90 when his next six-year term ends.

Zimmer has struggled to get his name known to most voters in a state that last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1974. Interest in the presidential race has overshadowed New Jersey's Senate race. And Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute said Zimmer doesn't have the money for the television ad blitz to counter the incumbent's advantage.

The one-hour debate was aired live on New Jersey 101.5 FM. A second debate is scheduled to air on New Jersey's public television network at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

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