RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Voters in New Jersey go to the polls next week in a special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Frank Lautenberg. The popular mayor of Newark was expected to cruise to victory. But Cory Booker is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Tea Party favorite Steve Lonegan, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This was supposed to be a mismatch. Cory Booker and his 1.4 million Twitter followers versus Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, population 8,000. But no one told Steve Lonegan.
STEVE LONEGAN: What New Jersey needs, sir, is a leader, not a tweeter.
ROSE: In their first debate, Lonegan chided Booker for spending more time tweeting and traveling than solving Newark's problems.
LONEGAN: We need somebody who's going to be there to govern, who's going to be there to do the job. Not be running around the country on speaking tours and getting speaking fees.
ROSE: It's true that Booker has made a lot of money from his speaking engagements, upwards of a million dollars in the past five years. But Booker says he's raised even more in philanthropic donations.
MAYOR CORY BOOKER: Please understand: I have traveled around the country. But when I do, I actually bring back resources for Newark, New Jersey. We set a record with over $400 million of new philanthropy in our city.
ROSE: Booker has been on the defensive lately. He's had to answer questions about his personal investments, a made-up character he used in stump speeches, even friendly Twitter messages with a stripper in Oregon.
Booker's relaxed campaign schedule hasn't helped him either, says Brigid Harrison, who teaches political science at Montclair State University.
BRIGID HARRISON: We've seen this kind of Rose Garden campaign strategy where he doesn't seem to be out and about and campaigning a whole lot. And he's really kind of played this off as he's already won the election.
ROSE: Booker is still leading. But one recent poll showed Lonegan within a dozen points. This week the Booker campaign responded with a more vigorous schedule and sharper attacks. Here's Booker at a forum in the North Jersey suburb of Whippany.
BOOKER: My opponent right now represents the Tea Party in New Jersey and has those extreme views that to me would make everything that's wrong with Washington worse.
ROSE: Lonegan doesn't deny that he's a conservative. He ran the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a group tied to the Koch brothers. Before that, Lonegan built a successful small business despite being legally blind. Lonegan says he believes in Republican efforts to fight the Affordable Care Act.
LONEGAN: There are times for compromise and there's times for not compromising. In this current government shutdown today, I believe that Obamacare is a trainwreck.
ROSE: That message seems to be connecting with core Republican voters like Joe Eckel, who's eating lunch at a diner down the road.
JOE ECKEL: I've known Steve for a quite a while. I think he's a stand-up guy and he's fiscally responsible.
ROSE: But Lonegan's ideas on the role of government and social issues, like abortion, may be too extreme for many New Jersey voters, who tend to support centrist Republicans like Governor Chris Christie. Steve Newmark of Florham Park describes himself as an independent.
STEVE NEWMARK: So there are particular Republicans in the state that I love. I mean Chris Christie, I can't think of a better guy.
ROSE: Seems like Lonegan then would have a shot at your vote, but...?
NEWMARK: Well, I tend to think he's a little too to the right for me.
ROSE: New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican senator in 40 years. That should reassure supporters of Cory Booker. But voter Lew Schwarz is taking nothing for granted in a special election on a Wednesday in the middle of October.
LEW SCHWARZ: Because Booker has run a lackluster campaign and this special election is like a primary, when you can never be absolutely certain who's going to win, because if you don't get a big vote out for your person, you may get a nasty surprise.
ROSE: A win for Steve Lonegan next week would be a nasty surprise for Democrats in the Senate, who look forward to recovering the seat they lost when Frank Lautenberg died in June.
Joel Rose, NPR News.