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Senate Candidates Face Off in First of Three Debates

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, had little trouble keeping to their campaign scripts in the first of three scheduled debates held Thursday night in Montclair.

Before about 110 people in an auditorium at Montclair State University's Cali School of Music, Menendez talked of "fighting back for the middle class," while Kyrillos insisted, “We can do better."

Although the hour-long event included wide-ranging questions from moderator Mike Schneider of NJTV, four panelists and one who submitted taped questions, they seldom ruffled either candidate.

Well into the debate,Kyrillos momentarily put Menendez on the defensive when discussing unsuccessful efforts to keep Fort Monmouth's operations from being shifted to Maryland. "I'm not sure where you were in that fight, Bob," Kyrillos said, one of a number of times he addressed his opponent directly as they stood at side-by-side podiums.

But Kyrillos made no direct response when Menendez repeatedly said he had of "walked out on women" by failing to vote on equal-pay measures and voting against women's health-care funding bills.

New Jersey Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth)

Afterward, only Menendez stayed around to claim victory to the media. The debate presented "a clear contrast," he said, and viewers could see "my views are more in the mainstream."

Kyrillos had to leave for another commitment, according to his campaign manager, Chapin Fay. But he disputed Menendez's comments, saying, "You have to take a position before you can claim an accomplishment."

As in Wednesday night's presidential debate, taxes and spending provided an undercurrent throughout the evening.

Menendez was prepared with specifics when asked about wasteful programs he had voted to eliminate to reduce the federal deficit, naming programs pushed more by partisan contributors than by the Pentagon: the F-22 fighter and a new fighter engine.

But Kyrillos said that, as on other issues, the incumbent spent too much time blaming the other party.

"It's always the other guy's fault," he said.

Repeatedly referring to Menendez as one of "these guys in Washington," Kyrillos said Congress needs more people with his experience of working with both sides in Trenton.

Following campaign strategy, Kyrillos laid the blame for the poor economy at Menendez's door.

"Bob keeps talking about fighting for the middle class... the middle class is getting buried," he said.

Because of gridlock in Congress, the nation faces the prospect of drastic program cuts and tax increases at the end of the year, a "fiscal cliff" self-created by both parties.

"Everybody's taxes are going to go up," Kyrillos warned.

But Menendez dismissed that prospect during and after the debate. Negotiations have been continuing in Washington, and "we're going to have a very robust lame duck session following the election on that very issue," he said. "I'm very optimistic that we will save the nation from such an economic body-blow."

When Kyrillos sought to blame Washington for New Jersey's even worse economy, Menendez responded that some blame should go to Gov. Chris Christie's job cuts, which his opponent has supported.

"While I've provided funding to keep thousands of teachers in the classroom, he voted to put thousands of them out," Menendez said.

The incumbent also was able to cite a number of his bills that have passed with bipartisan support, such as programs pertaining to autism and housing, and tough sanctions against Iran.

The latter provided one area of near-agreement, as the two men sought to outbid each other in truculence toward Iranians. Menendez pointed to that country's loss of oil revenue and the declining value of its currency. But if the sanctions do not discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- thus far, there is no evidence that the country has them -- the senator said, "All options should be on the table."

But Kyrillos was pessimistic, calling the sanctions "too little, too late." As a result, "This is a very, very fearful time for our country and the world at large," he said.

The two also disagreed on past and current wars. Menendez credited President Obama for bringing troops home from Iraq, and said he should follow a faster schedule for withdrawing from Afghanistan. The mission there should switch to counter-terrorism along the Pakistan border instead of propping up the Afghan government, he said.

But Kyrillos suggested such decisions are being made for political reasons. The United States has enemies over there and should continue to "take the offensive (there) before they come to our shores," he said.

Three were a few moments of levity. Kyrillos suggested that the government should at least consider privatizing Amtrak, adding, "I really love riding Amtrak to Washington. I hope to do that more come January."

That drew a smile from Menendez, who drew a laugh from the crowd when he replied, "I hope you'll be visiting me a lot."

Afterward, Menendez's confidence received a boost when one of the panelists, Montclair State professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, praised his performance. Harrison said she was not faulting Kyrillos' positions so much as answers that did not flesh them out.

"One of things that we saw is a real clear voice of experience with Sen. Menendez," she said. "This was Sen. Kyrillos’ first real experience in a debate on the federal level."

Both men have had extensive political careers. Menendez, 58, is seeking a second full, six-year Senate term after initially being appointed to replace Gov. Jon Corzine. He previously served as mayor of Union City, and in the state Assembly and state Senate, before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1992.

Kyrillos, 52, was elected to the state Assembly in 1987, and moved up to the state Senate just four years later. He has been there ever since.

Mike Schneider, managing editor and anchor of NJ Today, was the moderator. In addition to Harrison, the panelists were Alfred P. Doblin, editorial page editor of The Record and Herald News: Herb Jackson, The Record’s' Washington correspondent; and Michael Aron, chief political correspondent for NJ Today. WBGO News Director Doug Doyle submitted taped questions.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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