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Opinion: Candidates Do Well in Debate, Frontrunner Doesn't Stumble

Booker steals the show at Democratic debate while Buono still struggles to move the needle, despite Silva pick.

Michael Aron

Monday's debate between the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates did nothing to alter the sense that this is Cory Booker's seat for a good long time, unless he pulls a Jon Corzine and decides he'd rather run for governor in 2017 or 2021 than continue on in the Senate.

All four candidates were good in the NJTV-Bergen Record debate. Rush Holt argued passionately that he's the true progressive in the field. Sheila Oliver showed that while enmeshed in state issues she still has been able to read about world affairs and develop sharp views. Frank Pallone demonstrated considerable knowledge and experience as a workhorse liberal Democrat.

And Booker spoke as if he'd had five more cups of coffee than Holt and Pallone, two more than Oliver. He perhaps painted a rosier picture of Newark than the one most New Jerseyans see in their heads. He wasn't perfectly articulate as he cobbled together on-the-fly answers to Mike Schneider's and Alfred Doblin's questions, always with a dash of utopianism and can-do boosterism thrown in.

Where the others wanted to "invest," Booker said more than investment we need "action."

He probably got off the best gotcha line of the night when, after Pallone and Holt took him to task for supporting school vouchers and the Opportunity Scholarship Act as Chris Christie does, he pointed out that they had voted twice for the DC Opportunity Scholarship program as part of omnibus education bills.

Acknowledging that the program was embedded in larger pieces of legislation -- and thus might have been voted for inadvertently -- only added to the cutting nature of the comment. The standard practice is to say "you voted for x" and not say it was part of a larger bill. Booker's concern for accuracy underscored the point.

Holt spoke too hesitatingly, to the point of occasionally appearing doddering. Pallone's conversation sometimes had a whining quality about it. Oliver over-enunciated and looked angry at times. Booker was so enthusiastic it bordered on fakery. But they are who they are, and any of us can be taken to task for our presentational skills. In terms of substance, they were an impressive group, as Mike Schneider suggested toward the end.

So, it looks as if it will be Booker vs. Republican Steve Lonegan in October.

Lonegan is an incendiary politician, which means he is seeking to blow up Cory Booker. When he gets the chance, he tears into Booker's record in Newark. He rails against Booker's big-government tendencies. And he is entertaining in the process.

But he doesn't have the aura of destiny about him that Booker does. He doesn't have the stature, or the story. I find it remarkable that, although legally blind, Lonegan played football in high school and has navigated the state's political world for 25 years hardly ever referring to his disability.

But remarkable in a different way was walking through a corridor at last year's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and seeing person after person recognize Booker, fawn over him, and pull out the smartphone for the souvenir picture.

But more than persona, it's politics that heavily favors Booker. The state leans Democratic. It hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 41 years. Booker is a moderate, sometimes centrist, sometimes liberal, chameleon Democrat. Lonegan, fresh off his leadership position with the Koch-brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity organization, is a right-leaning, Tea-Party type Republican of the sort that usually plays better in the heartland than on either seaboard.

Lonegan will make his life difficult for two months, annoy him, anger him, provoke him, but Booker should win by 20 points.

In the other marquee race this fall, Chris Christie should defeat Barbara Buono for re-election by at least 20 points.

This morning's paper tells us that Christie is the most "likable" politician in America, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. He scored 53.1 degrees on the poll's "thermometer" of voter attitudes, followed by Hillary Clinton (52.1), Elizabeth Warrren (49.2) and President Obama (47.6)!

How did this happen! It happened beneath our very eyes! It's been happening steadily through the last three years, given a great push by Christie's handling of Sandy.

Buono is out there trying to make the case against Christie. There is a case that can be made. Gay marriage. Minimum wage. Women's health. Sputtering recovery. Sandy victim frustrations. Putting yourself in publicly funded TV ads. Environmental deregulation. Crumbling infrastructure. One eye on Iowa. Somehow it's not sticking. It's not dragging him down. Not yet, anyway.

Buono appears to be having trouble raising enough money even to get the message out to those who might be influenced by it. Yes, she finally qualified for public matching funds this week, but maxing out remains a distant target.

She tried jump-starting a new phase in the campaign with her outside-the-box selection of Milly Silva as a running mate. It's unclear as yet whether that has helped any.

My first reaction was that it was a terrible selection: an unknown, someone of no stature in the political realm, someone who would have to run the state as its governor without any preparation if Buono were to win and then be incapacitated. I had seen Milly Silva as an introductory speaker at two Buono press events in the weeks prior to her selection, and she hadn't made a deep impression on me.

The day she was introduced as the lieutenant governor candidate, it started to look better. There was an enthusiastic crowd in the room, something rare at Buono's recent press events. Silva herself spoke well, told a good story about growing up poor, attacked Christie on cue, and had real presence. There was a Cinderella quality to her having been selected. Suddenly, one could buy into the notion that an all-female ticket might excite some women voters, a Latina might excite some Hispanic voters, an SEIU labor union vice president might excite some labor unions, and all three of those groups might start giving a little more money and devoting a few more bodies to the campaign.

I've tried out that argument on several of my confidantes, who have told me I should stick with my first reaction. "Buono is dead meat," they say. "Does she know she's gonna get killed?," they ask. "Why is she even doing this?"

I tell them she is too smart not to have figured out how this will all work for her in the long run. I tell them, "Everyone will know who she is" when it's over. I tell them, "If she can lose well, it works."

A single-digit loss would be fantastic. Under 20 with two good debate performances, good ads, and a good last-week blitz would be satisfactory. Over 20 and she's cooked.

For those of us caught up in what my friend Nick Acocella of "Politifax" calls "this thing of ours," 2013 offers interest but very little suspense. It's barely August, and the mind turns toward margins of victory and margins of defeat.

Michael Aron is the chief political correspondent of NJTV.

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