Some of the candidates may object to the pecking order, but both feathers and ideas are flying in a freewheeling, issue-oriented campaign for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
The battle for the dubious honor of challenging well-funded incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, in a presidential year has attracted four energetic, if not especially well-known, contenders.
Best known is state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, and the most recent poll numbers found that more than two-thirds of New Jerseyans had never heard of him. None of the major polls even bothered to gauge voters’ opinions of the other Republicans: Bader Qarmout, David-Douglas Brown and Joe “Rudy” Rullo.
The polls also showed support somewhat soft for Menendez, which is giving Republicans hope in their quest to unseat him. They argue that the struggling economies of the nation and state make this year's contests harder to call than in other presidential years, when high turnouts often favor Democrats.
None of the pundits disputes that Kyrillos, who has spent more than two decades in the Legislature, is the clear frontrunner. The Middletown resident also has by far the most resources, with almost $1.4 million on hand at the end of March compared to no more than a fistful of dollars for any of the other candidates, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
His margin of support comes from the backing of regular Republican organizations throughout the state. But Kyrillos' three opponents argue that apparent advantage means less at a time when voters are tired of partisan gridlock and looking beyond the party apparatus for ideas. With backers among Tea Party groups, as well as a smattering of support among elected Republicans, all believe they have energized bases.
"People are tired of career politicians, who don't have the pulse of the population," said Rullo, who owns a solar energy business in Beachwood. That applies to Menendez as well as to Kyrillos, he said, noting that polls show a large and potentially decisive number of independents lean toward "somebody else."
Brown sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2009, at least until a higher-profile opponent, Steve Lonegan, challenged his nominating petitions and got him knocked off the ballot. Brown said he learned a lot from that race, at least from eventual winner Chris Christie.
"One of things that I really enjoyed about that experience was the opportunity to participate in public debates of the issues," said Brown, an East Brunswick inventor.
This time, debates themselves are an issue, causing the outsider candidates to turn to fowl language, accusing Kyrillos of ducking them.
"When you see Joe Kyrillos, tell him I said he's chicken," said Qarmout whose description of himself is: “I’m someone else.”
The real estate investor from Green Township said Kyrillos has not shown a front-runner's confidence, twice committing to debates only to pull out the night before when it was too late to reschedule.
"He's afraid to get up on a stage in public and be questioned about his positions," Qarmout said. "If he can't debate me in front of Republicans, how well do you think he's going to do against Menendez?"
Kyrillos was undeterred by the criticism, and non-committal about future appearances. He praised the other contenders for "their willingness to serve" rather than sit on the sidelines. But he suggested that for a federal campaign, preparation means more than enthusiasm.
"I wonder sometimes how people can just jump into a race of this magnitude," Kyrillos said.
He sounded common Republican themes about debt, over-regulation and lack of leadership from Washington. Looking ahead to the general election, though, he acknowledged that when it comes to partisan gridlock, "there are some Republicans" among the culpable. In New Jersey, by contrast, Kyrillos said he has been able to work with legislators from both parties and all parts of the state.
"People want to know that the American Dream is going to be alive for their kids and their grandkids," which requires a growing economy and controlled debt, he said.
That could mean adopting "a lot" of the politically charged Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan, Kyrillos said. Even "elements of what the Gang of Six put together" could be useful, he said, referring to similar suggestions from a bipartisan group of senators. Both packages have been anathema to conservative groups because they would include some taxes.
While the other candidates gave no overt indications of accepting more taxes, they all showed some willingness to tinker with conservative orthodoxy.
Brown said his "number one thing" is to cut the size of government, "because it's out of control." But that means "auditing everything" for potential savings, not simply negotiating from partisan agendas, he said. More than anything, the state and the nation need innovation.
"For us to move forward, you need somebody who is a visionary, and who better than an inventor?" Brown said, citing a special award he received in 2001 from the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame. It was for "String Thing," a device that makes it easier to tie up bundles.
Like the other candidates, Brown emphasized the need to lower the tax burden on small businesses, which often cannot take advantage of the loopholes that large corporations use to escape burdens under the current tax code. He favors terms limits, and offers the most colorful ballot slogan, "Republican Conservatism Stomping Taxes and Auditing Government Intrusion," though his examples of the latter tend toward state issues, such as traffic surveillance cameras and subsidies to utilities.
At a time of mass deportations by the Obama Administration, concern over illegal immigration has been a major talking point in the campaign. But where Rullo would build bases along the borders and staff them with troops returning from foreign wars, Qarmout proposed a more extensive plan that includes deportation for undocumented residents who commit crimes, and fines and a 10-year process to obtain a green card for law-abiding residents.
"Coming from a business background, I'm looking for a practical, workable solution," said Qarmout, a Christian immigrant from Jordan.
Rullo’s business background has shaped his position.
"I had a landscaping business that's at a standstill," Rullo said, "because I'm competing against businesses that hire illegal aliens. You can't compete for jobs against companies that aren't paying benefits or insurance."
Both accuse Kyrillos of "turning a blind eye to the problem." They also agree that non-negotiated cuts in the pensions of public employees in New Jersey and other states -- steps often initiated by Republicans -- are underhanded moves by the political establishment.
"The career politicians vote for these pension plans, and then instead of taking responsibility, they throw our police and firefighters and teachers under the bus," Rullo said. "Those people didn't do anything wrong; it was the politicians who keep taking money out of the pension funds to spend on other things that created the problem."
"These are hard-working people who are protecting us, and they deserve our respect, not unfair blame," Qarmout said.
Kyrillos already is looking ahead to the fall. In recent days, he has criticized Menendez for lobbing softball questions at former Gov. Jon Corzine, his political patron, over the collapse of his MF Global brokerage. But that story was quickly eclipsed by the even larger trading losses at JP Morgan Chase, which had been touted as a relative point of safety in the stock market tilt-a-whirl.
Kyrillos hopes to find more traction by focusing attention on Menendez's decision to return only the most recent $18,000 of $100,000 in illegal campaign contributions.
"I'm sure he didn't know at the time that there was anything questionable, but you can return or you can donate them to charity," Kyrillos said. "That would be the right thing to do. The fact that he did neither is revealing."
While Brown, Rullo and Qarmout direct most of their attacks at Kyrillos, this one is mild when compared with the typical mud fight. While they have been doing a lot of squawking about issues, none of the four candidates had anything worse to call each other personally than "chicken."