The New Jersey Democrats campaigning for U.S. Senate stood shoulder to shoulder at a press conference to aid a Newark woman whose home is in foreclosure. All support gay marriage, and, as of a few days ago, all are active on Twitter. They even shared a table for a breakfast meeting bringing the fractious party together before the fall elections.
How, then, do the four Senate hopefuls distinguish themselves by the Aug. 13 special election primary?
“We share many core principles governmentally, but we've all walked different journeys,” says Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who lags the field in a recent poll. “Mayor (Cory) Booker looks through the lens of being a municipal government leader, I look through the lens of being a state government leader, and congressmen (Rush) Holt and (Frank) Pallone look through the lens of serving on Capitol Hill. The issues are the same, but our perspectives may be slightly different.”
The campaign to fill a one-year term began after Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the country's oldest senator, died June 3 at age 89. Republican Gov. Chris Christie set a special election for Oct 16, the soonest legally allowable date, with party primaries on Aug. 13. That gives candidates just nine weeks over the summer to raise money and campaign. The Democratic primary has added significance because New Jersey hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate in more than 40 years. But in this election, as few as 200,000 voters may decide the outcome.
An election for a full six-year term will be held next year.
If Oliver is right, the abbreviated campaign will come down to biographies.
Oliver, 61, has staked out her position as the person who best understands issues of concern to women and who could give New Jersey's all-male congressional delegation its first female senator.
Holt, 64, a onetime astrophysicist, is emphasizing his knowledge of math and science to demonstrate a command of environmental and fiscal issues. Pallone, 61, the more senior member of Congress, is running on his Washington knowhow, long ties to organized labor and co-sponsorship of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Pallone was endorsed by Lautenberg's family, who included this zinger, presumably aimed at Booker: “Frank Pallone knows that gimmicks and celebrity status won't get you very far in the real battles that Democrats face in the future.”
Booker, the 44-year-old mayor of Newark, ruffled feathers by publicly eyeing the seat before Lautenberg announced plans to retire in 2015. He's Ivy League educated, has 1.3 million Twitter followers and is the only one of the four with statewide name recognition and a national following. As a result, he's been dominating the race.
“You've got four great Democrats, all working hard,” says Booker, who vowed not to say a negative word about his opponents during the campaign. “Voters have a great crisis of riches here to find out who the best candidate is for them and their vision of what we can do to change Washington.”
Booker has been running as a Washington outsider and big-city executive who has brought hundreds of millions in construction contracts and investments to Newark. But it's his numerous national TV appearances, speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention and friendships with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that are more likely to make the difference in this race.
“It's hard to build a political identity in New Jersey,” said Quinnipiac University pollster Maurice Carroll. “People who are not known in early July are going to have an awful, awful task becoming known by mid-August.”
Carroll says Pallone and Holt aren't well-known outside their districts and neither is Oliver, despite her position as leader of the state's General Assembly. The poll released Tuesday found 63 percent or more of surveyed voters said they didn't know enough about the three to form an opinion. Only 27 percent said they didn't know enough about Booker to form an opinion.
Pallone has called for more debates, other than the two Booker agreed to, to give the candidates additional opportunities to distinguish themselves, but it's unlikely to happen with so little time until the election.
As for the chance for the other three to build name recognition and mount a viable challenge to Booker?
“History says it's impossible,” Carroll says.