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Incumbent Touts Record While GOP Foe Links Him to Unpopular Governor

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is seeking a second full term, challenged by a veteran state legislator, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth.

New Jersey Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth)

But as the campaign wears on, Kyrillos increasingly has chosen to run against a different man: former Gov. Jon Corzine.

The South Jersey state legislator accustomed to easy victories in his Shore district is far behind Menendez in every poll and so is trying to link his opponent with New Jersey’s last governor, whose popularity plummeted as the recession worsened in 2008 and 2009..

At the same time, nine other contenders, ignored by the major parties and not even afforded the publicity of the three senatorial debates, are trying to insert themselves into the conversation in whatever way they can.

It is not proving easy for them, or for the much better funded Kyrillos, to gain voter support, with the Hudson County Democrat leading by double digits, and as much as 22 percent, in four separate polls this month.

Menendez chose his campaign theme early: “Fighting back for the middle class.”

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

With the advantages of incumbency and money – he had about $6.7 million more than Kyrillos as of Sept. 30 -- Menendez has been able to stick to that theme. His advertising paints a consistent picture of a man, from a blue-collar background and immigrant parents, who has stayed true to his roots.

Beyond his home base, Kyrillos introduced himself to voters around the state as a reformer and a close friend of Gov. Chris Christie, but also as that increasingly rare species: a Republican moderate.

At the same time, Kyrillos sought to capitalize on concerns over the nation’s economic woes. In a series of press releases, statements and debating points, Kyrillos blamed Menendez for everything from declining employment and to rising debt.

The limitations of that strategy became apparent during a radio debate on New Jersey 101.5 earlier this month, when Menendez countered by trying to tie Kyrillos to New Jersey’s lagging economic recovery.

As the two men talked over each other, moderator Eric Scott had a Candy Crowley moment, pointing out the obvious.

“It is disingenuous for either party to blame an individual legislator” for national or state economic ills, he said. Menendez “isn’t responsible for $3 trillion in debt,” Scott said.

So as Menendez continues to talk about middle-class tax cuts, middle-class jobs and middle-class health care, Kyrillos has increasingly questioned his mathematics, calling his opponent a practitioner of “Jon Corzine economics.”

Corzine, former chairman of the investment firm Goldman Sachs, was considered a financial whiz when he arrived in the U.S. Senate. After a single term as governor in trying economic times, the bloom was off the rose, and his subsequent losses back on Wall Street have turned him into a punchline.

Since Corzine appointed Menendez to replace him in the U.S. Senate, making the connection is no strain for Kyrillos. His campaign offered a commercial with an old clip of Vice President Joe Biden proclaiming,“I literally called up Jon Corzine and said, ‘Jon, what should we do?’”

In addition, Kyrillos has begun questioning Menendez’s ethics. He states that Menendez owned stock in Spanish Broadcasting Systems, which was one of his largest donors, and then tried unsuccessfully to block Univision’s takeover of SBS rival Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. Menendez responded that he lost money on the investment.

Neither man is a stranger to political allegations as they both have spent much of their adult lives in politics. Menendez began locally in Union City, then moved on to the state Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. After starting in the state Assembly, Kyrillos has been a fixture in the state Senate since 1991.

Both have also done stints steering the partisan team. Menendez was head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 2008, and often identified as de facto leader of the powerful Hudson County party. Kyrillos is a former chairman of the Republican State Committee and head presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign in New Jersey.

Menendez has been able to point to progress on matters affecting large numbers of constituents. For instance, he says he got $52 million in tax credits for 133 New Jersey biotech companies, and $500 million for hundreds of solar-energy projects.

Because of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, “70,000 young people in New Jersey now have health care under their parents’ insurance” until they turn 26, and insurers cannot drop those with pre-existing conditions, he said.

Menendez also highlights his efforts to get $300 million in federal aid to help some New Jerseyans avoid losing their homes to foreclosure. In the state with the second highest rate of pending foreclosures, it is a doubly useful issue. He and fellow Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have been been in a protracted battle to get the state to spend the money, which Christie recently acknowledged his administration should do.

On a key social issue, same-sex marriage, Menendez acknowledges he has changed position. As a congressman in the 1990s, “I looked at it as a religious issue,” he said. But through conversations with constituents, he said he has “evolved” to the point where “I have come to consider that this is a civil-rights issue.”

A Catholic, Menendez said he supports the Roe v. Wade abortion framework because “I don’t think it’s right to impose my religious views” on people of other faiths.

Those are issues that Kyrillos has publicly wrestled with over the course of the campaign, sometimes in the course of the same sentence.

“I believe that marriage is between a man and woman, and I believe in civil unions,” he said, before calling the whole thing “a states’ rights issue.”

Regarding abortion, Kyrillos said, "I'm pro-life in my thought process... I'm pro-choice for the society at large.”

Such earnest meanderings may reinforce Kyrillos’ record as less ideologically driven than many in the national GOP.

From a personal perspective, they may reflect many voters’ own difficulty in deciding such philosophical matters as when life begins and what role the government should play in determining that.

But in the glare of a political campaign, they have left him open to lines like Menendez’ riposte in their third broadcast debate: “We’ve had three debates and he’s given three different answers.”

Despite his close friendship with Christie, Kyrillos’ friendly, low-key style is more suited to one-on-one discussions than YouTube flare-ups.

Kyrillos entered the final weeks of the campaign needing to connect with more voters. A Quinnipiac University poll taken Oct. 10-14, in the midst of their debates, found Menendez extending his lead to 18 points, with 55 percent support, while more than half of those polled still without an opinion of Kyrillos. A survey by the Stockton Polling Institute done Oct. 12-18 gave Menendez an even larger margin, 52 percent to 30 percent.

A number of other candidates are on the ballot would like to have anything close to the recognition Kyrillos has. While not welcome at the debates, several were able to participate in an Oct. 17 forum – not attended by either Menendez or Kyrillos -- at Mercer County Community College.

Robert “Turk” Turkavage says the divisive tactics of the two major parties has become part of the problem in Washington.

Turkavage is a registered Republican, but he is running as an independent under the slogan “Responsibility Integrity Fairness.” He said it is time the country took responsibility for its spending and borrowing and calls the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission “our best hope” to control costs.

He supports revising how benefits are calculated for Social Security and gradually increasing the ages for retirement and early eligibility. He would convert federal Medicaid funding into block grants to the states.

And he supports the unusual position of imposing a “debt elimination assessment” on taxpayers.

“Most people say, ‘We don’t mind paying more if we know the money is going to eliminate the debt,’” Turkavage said.

He would put in place a somewhat progressive fee, which would go into a designated fund and be released solely for debt reduction once Congress passed a balanced budget. Turkavage also favors a balanced budget constitutional amendment, with leeway for national emergencies, and would create an independent post of auditor general to better ferret out waste, fraud and abuse.

Turkavage is pro-life, “even when it is not convenient,” he said. So he favors tough gun-control laws and opposes the death penalty. A Catholic who believes “marriage is between a man and a woman,” Turkavage also said same-sex couples should receive equal treatment under the law.

Drawing on decades in banking and his current position as chief executive of a travel company, independent Inder Soni of Metuchen said he wants to educate voters about finance and taxes with the aim of avoiding another meltdown in the markets.

A native of India, Soni said he is happy that American corporations “have gone all over the world, and we should let them.” But he would offer incentives to those willing to bring jobs back home.

Soni would offer tax incentives to small businesses, and said banks should be required to pay at least 5 percent interest on accounts held by senior citizens below a certain income level. To pay for this, Soni would eliminate what he called “unproductive social programs,” including unemployment compensation for younger workers.

“If they don’t have a job, we shouldn’t be paying them,” he said.

J. David Dranikoff of Livingston said he wants to “end the corruption” in the political process. Dranikoff said the rising debt can be traced directly to the influence campaign contributors have over major-party politicians.

“Some are tied to major financial institutions, some to oil companies and some to both,” he said in a statement. “Surely we are not to believe that this money is donated to our leaders’ campaigns with no strings attached!”

Dranikoff called the national debt “the most dangerous aspect” of our national security. But he said the two major parties have not been honest in their discussion of it. As the occupation of Iraq winds down and the government spends less on the military, Dranikoff said 70 percent of the savings should go toward debt reduction, while the rest should pay to fix infrastructure and provide microloans to small businesses.

Dranikoff said the politics of immigration has become “more emotional than substantive.” He favors deporting illegal immigrants, but providing more opportunities for farm workers and foreign students to stay in the county.

Gregory Pason of Montclair has a long history of activism. As the candidate of the Socialist Party USA, he has been involved for years in events ranging from street fairs and parades to anti-war vigils and forums.

His history of work on behalf of women’s issues, such as equal pay and reproductive rights, earned Pason the backing of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, along with Menendez and Kenneth Wolski, another independent.

Pason has been unimpressed by Kyrillos’ efforts, saying at a forum last month that the Republican “is not campaigning too hard.” But Pason concentrates his fire on Menendez as an ostensible liberal who is “really bad” on foreign policy, especially saber-rattling toward Iran and supporting the embargo against Cuba.

“Menendez is one of the most pro-military senators there is,” Pason said. His own platform calls for cutting the military budget in half and closing most foreign bases.

Wolski, of Trenton, is another long-time activist. The standard-bearer of the Green Party, he is also known to voters as the director of the Medical Marijuana Coalition of New Jersey,

He told a candidates’ forum he is seeking “to end the influence of corporate money on the electoral process, to end the destructive and ineffective war on drugs, and to ensure free and universal health care for all Americans.”

The current economic downturn “is where unregulated capitalism has taken us,” Wolski said. The Green Party offers a “Green New Deal,” which aside from direct spending will also stimulate the economy, he said.

He backs some form of national health insurance.

“We need to expand a Medicare-like program to all Americans,” he said, adding that with the exploding cost of private health insurance, the country is already paying the cost of a national system, “we just aren’t getting it.”

Activist Daryl Brooks, also from Trenton, faults the major party candidates for ignoring issues like the impacts of the drug war and the growth of “the prison-industrial complex,” he told the candidates’ forum.

But Brooks said his first job in office would be to get government “out of the way of small business” by repealing the Dodd-Frank Act that re-established the regulation of banks and brokerages in the wake of the financial meltdown.

He said he favors offshore drilling for natural gas, contending there is $29 billion worth of gas in offshore deposits, and “right now there’s no offshore drilling on the East Coast.”

Brooks described himself as participating in both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Brandishing a copy of the U.S. Constitution, Libertarian Party stalwart Kenneth Kaplan of Parsisppany supports the party’s principles, telling the candidates’ forum, “I don’t see anything in here about bailouts, about health care, about education. These are things that can be done by individuals and by local government.”

Kaplan, a real-estate broker who ran for governor in 2009, favors eliminating the federal income tax to stimulate growth. But he said most impediments to small business “are on the local level,” through zoning and other regulations.

Instead of rationally curbing spending, Kaplan said that both parties in Washington talk about cutting programs that affect the poor and “those that are most necessary.” But these are scare tactics designed to obscure the real solution, he said.

“Those programs don’t have to be cut first,” Kaplan said. “It’s the bloated defense spending that could be cut; it’s having troops all over the world and acting as the world’s policeman that can be cut; it’s getting us out of this war in Afghanistan.”

Gwen Diakos of Tinton Falls did not return calls for comment. According to her website, she has studied both telecommunications and linguistics, and worked for the U.S. Army. Her slogan is Jersey Strong Independents.

Eugene Martin LaVergne, an attorney from West Long Branch, also could not be reached for comment. Last year, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the current system for apportioning the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Late in the year, the state Supreme Court temporarily suspended his license to practice law; in January, authorities filed charges over his handling of trust accounts.

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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