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New Jersey's Lautenberg Faces Primary Challenge

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New Jersey's Lautenberg Faces Primary Challenge

Election 2008: Congressional & State Races

New Jersey's Lautenberg Faces Primary Challenge

New Jersey's Lautenberg Faces Primary Challenge

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At 84, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is seeking another six-year term. The senator's age has become an issue in a Democratic primary tilt against Rep. Rob Andrews.


In New Jersey, a rare thing is happening for a state with a powerful political machine. Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg is facing a tough primary challenge. Congressman Rob Andrews initially pledged his support to the long-time senator.

But then, as Nancy Solomon reports, Andrews broke ranks in hopes of grabbing the Senate seat.

NANCY SOLOMON: When Rob Andrews talks about why voters should not give Frank Lautenberg a fifth term, he doesn't mention that the senator is 84 years old. But the age issue is they are all the same. When Andrews talks about his work style...

Representative ROB ANDREWS (Democrat, New Jersey): And I think I'm the person with the most drive and energy...

SOLOMON: Or when he defends himself against Lautenberg's criticism of his voting record...

Rep. ANDREWS: The senator is fixated on the past.

SOLOMON: Or when Andrews criticizes Lautenberg on his past positions.

Rep. ANDREWS: Now, he's either misleading people about that record or he's forgetful about it.

SOLOMON: The reason behind his choice of words is pretty clear especially to Lautenberg.

Senator FRANK LAUTENBERG: (Democrat, New Jersey) We ought to be talking about the issues and he ought to get away from the innuendo and insinuation about the fact that a person's age is the yardstick by which you ought to measure someone. It's effectiveness.

SOLOMON: But Lautenberg made the very same argument when he ran against the 72--year-old Republican, Millicent Fenwick, in 1982. And Andrews isn't going to let voters forget it. He's running a TV ad that pairs Lautenberg's criticism of Fenwick's age with the fact that he'll be 90 at the end of his term. But Andrews has some baggage of his own. He was the only member of the New Jersey delegation to co-sponsor the bill authorizing the war on Iraq. He now supports ending the war. But his earlier position has allowed Lautenberg to run ads that portray him as too conservative for New Jersey. Their actual positions, however, are not that different, according to Joe Marbach, a dean and political science professor at Seton Hall University.

Professor JOSEPH MARBACH: (Political Science, Dean, Seton Hall University) Votes on the environment, supporting labor, supporting key Democratic issues, there's not of - not much difference between these two candidates. So, I think at the end of the day, it's who's got which machines, who's backing them and really get out the vote.

SOLOMON: Getting out the vote won't be easy. New Jersey moved its presidential primary to February. So, many people think they already voted. That's not helped by the fact that local news coverage is dominated by its two big city neighbors, New York and Philadelphia. Outside a grocery store in South Orange, most shoppers like 28-year-old Charlie Becker(ph) had no idea statewide election campaign is underway.

SOLOMON: You know that there's a primary coming up?

Mr. CHARLIE BECKER (Shopper): No, I actually live in West Orange, so I don't know.

SOLOMON: No, this is for the whole state of New Jersey?

Mr. BECKER: Oh, no, I don't.

SOLOMON: Lautenberg's campaign is relying heavily on name recognition and advertising. And he has rallied nearly the entire Democratic establishment in the state behind him. Andrews has been shunned by his fellow congressmen who are miffed that he jumped the line waiting for an open Senate seat. Andrews, meanwhile, has crisscrossed the state holding town hall meetings and making traditional campaign stops at parades, diners and work places.

Sen. ANDREWS: How are you? Thank you.

Unidentified Man: How are you, Robert?

SOLOMON: People at these campaign stops say they're impressed with Andrews. But the congressman is challenging a popular incumbent with 85 percent name recognition and a hefty lead in the polls. Still, New Jersey has few opportunities to run for statewide office because it only elects a governor and two senators and the more densely populated north dominates voting. So, Andrews must have calculated that if he was ever going to break out of his South Jersey District, the time is now.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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