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A congressional primary in New Jersey has turned into a bruising battle between two Democratic incumbents. Congressional redistricting means that long-serving members Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell will face off in an election next week. Despite their years of service together in the House of Representatives, the race has been anything but collegial, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There was a time when Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman described themselves as friends, though you'd never guess it from a series of recent debates.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE ROTHMAN: Bill voted to give this estate tax relief to billionaires. He changed his mind in further years, in further votes. I say that I'm the Democrat's Democrat up here.
ROSE: Steve Rothman has tried to portray himself as the more liberal of the two men, a claim Bill Pascrell vigorously disputes.
REPRESENTATIVE BILL PASCRELL: This is really a specious argument. I'm working for the middle-class. I'm working for the working poor. That's more important than what the label is on my head.
ROSE: The truth is that you have to look pretty closely to find much of a difference in their voting records at all. Both Rothman and Pascrell are seasoned veterans who've represented their districts since 1997. Rothman is 59, Pascrell is 75, but both have shown they still know how to throw a punch.
Even political observers like Peter Woolley, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, were caught off guard by the rough tone of the campaign.
PETER WOOLLEY: Everybody has been taken by surprise that these two men have really been very bitter toward each other, each one very anxious to hold on to his seat in the House of Representatives and willing to use the sharp elbows to do it.
ROSE: Woolley says both men are so desperate to grab an advantage that they've called in every favor they can from party bigwigs.
DAVID AXELROD: So when people say to you, you need to elect a congressman who's going to be the most effective ally for the president of the United States, I'm here to tell you that that man is Steve Rothman.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
ROSE: Top Obama adviser David Axelrod flew in from Chicago to endorse Steve Rothman at an event last week. Rothman was one of the first Northeastern Democrats in Congress to support the president back in 2007.
Bill Pascrell backed Hillary Clinton. This year, he's lined up the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton, who will campaign for Pascrell later this week. He also recorded this robocall.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: When I was president, Bill helped me make the economy work for everybody. And if you vote for him on Tuesday, June 5th, he'll help us to do it again.
ROSE: Pascrell and Rothman represented neighboring districts until this year, when slow population growth caused New Jersey to lose one congressional seat. Redistricting left Rothman's house in a different district, one that is currently represented by Republican Scott Garrett.
But rather than run against Garrett, who has support from the Tea Party, Rothman put his house on the market and moved back to Englewood, the city where he was mayor in the 1980s. Bill Pascrell says Rothman should have taken on the Republican instead.
PASCRELL: He chose to run and hide. He chose to leave and move back into the district that was assigned to me in the redistricting process. How is that helping the Obama agenda or the Democratic Party? I don't know.
ROSE: But Rothman insists he's simply following his constituents into the new district.
I was born and raised in this district, lived most of my life here. I was the mayor of the city of Englewood here, practiced law here and represented this district for the last 16 years in Congress. And I live here. So for somebody to say that this isn't my home district is a little silly.
On paper, it looks like the new district contains slightly more of Steve Rothman's constituents. He also has more money to spend. But Bill Pascrell has strong support around his hometown of Paterson, where he was mayor in the 1990s.
Democratic voter Thomas Lyons of Clifton says this is one choice he wishes he did not have to make.
THOMAS LYONS: It's regrettable that one of them wouldn't choose to take on Mr. Garrett. Nobody has the internal fortitude to go out and challenge the man. And it's a shame that it comes down to two good Democratic members here, Rothman and Pascrell.
ROSE: Because no matter what happens on Tuesday, one of those members is not going to represent New Jersey in Congress next year. Joel Rose, NPR News.