Lautenberg, Zimmer clash in final debate

November 1, 2008 7:16:00 PM PDT
Dick Zimmer, the underdog in New Jersey's U.S. Senate race, challenged the age and effectiveness of incumbent Frank Lautenberg, the clear favorite to win a record fifth term, as they met Saturday in their final debate before Tuesday's election. Though he did not raise age as an issue during the campaign, Zimmer said he's come to believe that 84-year-old Democrat is too old to serve another six-year term.

"I've reluctantly come to the conclusion he is too old to return to the Senate, because he has not been willing to run the kind of campaign that is required to show you are up to the job," the 64-year-old Republican challenger said.

Lautenberg disagreed, saying, "age has nothing to do with whether or not you are effective. It's well-known I produce regularly."

Lautenberg said his accomplishments include securing funding for port security, making sure homeland security grants are distributed based on risk - not politics - and recently securing $13 billion for Amtrak.

"What counts (to be effective in Washington) is your knowledge, your experience and the respect your colleagues have for you," said Lautenberg.

Zimmer, a former member of the House of Representatives, argued that Lautenberg has been ineffective while serving a quarter-century in Washington. For example, he said Lautenberg's done nothing to improve the "measly" 61 cents returned to New Jersey for every dollar the state pays in federal taxes.

"Sixty-one cents," said Zimmer. "If I give that to you, Senator, will you give me back a dollar? Of course you won't because it's a bad deal. And, it's a bad deal for New Jersey. We don't have to be satisfied with 61 cents we send to Washington for our taxes."

Lautenberg retired from the Senate after four terms, but returned after Bob Torricelli dropped out of the race in 2002. Zimmer said that since Lautenberg's colleagues did not restore his prior seniority, he remains one of the more junior members of the Senate.

Lautenberg said he chairs two important subcommittees, on environment and commerce, and that he's earned the respect of colleagues.

In one of the lighter moments of the debate, Lautenberg was asked about the number of homes he owns and where they are located.

"I own five homes. One, obviously, is in my beloved home state of New Jersey, my principal and only real home," he replied. "We have a place in Washington, D.C., because I work there. We have a couple of vacation places, and that's it."

Zimmer mocked Lautenberg's response, saying that by his count Lautenberg made his home in Manhattan and vacationed in the Hamptons, with vacation homes in Martha's Vineyard and Vail, Colo. Zimmer said he and his wife have lived in the same Delaware Township farmhouse for 30 years.

The hourlong debate was aired live on New Jersey's public television network, and will be repeated.

In their previous debate earlier this week, Lautenberg tried to paint Zimmer as a proponent of Bush administration policies while Zimmer tried to show Lautenberg as ineffective for New Jerseyans.

Polls consistently put Lautenberg far ahead, despite voters' concerns about his age. If re-elected, he will be 90 when his next term expires.

Zimmer, who has struggled to get his name and his message known to voters, said he never expected to get financial help from national Republicans.

"I know there are still some people who don't know who I am," said Zimmer, who has been outfinanced in the campaign. "But they do know who Frank Lautenberg is, and they think they need somebody else."

The presidential race has largely overshadowed the U.S. Senate campaign in New Jersey, and both candidates have run a low-key, uneventful race.

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