MILLVILLE - Former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan entered a small conference room at the Cumberland County Republican headquarters Friday with about a dozen local supporters waiting to hear him speak.
The presumed favorite for the Republican nomination for October's special U.S. Senate election did not let the heavy rain or the small crowd faze him. For the next half-hour, he spoke steadily - pausing only for laugh breaks and applause - on his platform.
In statewide elections, South Jersey is often overlooked by candidates for the more densely populated northern part of the state, but a little more than a month after declaring his candidacy to fill the seat vacated by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Lonegan has made four appearances in the local region.
Friday's event was another rally to draw support for the campaign. Lonegan spoke in Egg Harbor Township on June 7, the day after he announced his campaign. He spoke to the Republican headquarters in Atlantic and Cape May counties in stops Wednesday.
Lonegan said the other events had larger crowds, and the rain Friday stopped people from coming. But, he said, he plans to continue to come to this region, which he said has many people that connect to his core values.
"It's about the grassroots. To me, it's about going to the real voters," he said. "South Jersey is always neglected. But this is (a region) with responsive activists."
Lonegan did well in his only election in the region in June 2009, when he opposed Gov. Chris Christie for the Republican primary for governor.
In Atlantic County, he received 5,410 votes, 570 shy of Christie's 5,980. In Cumberland County, he received 1,674 votes to Christie's 2,141. In Ocean County, he received 15,152 to Christie's 22,473, and in Cape May County his 2,918 votes were more than 2,000 shy of Christie's 4,970.
Now, he is the presumed favorite for the Republican nomination.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, Lonegan leads his Republican opponent in the Aug. 13 - primary physician Alieta Eck, of Piscataway, Middlesex County - 62 percent to 5 percent, with 28 percent undecided. Eck's campaign office did not respond to an inquiry for comment.
The winner of the Republican primary will face one of four Democrats in the Oct. 16 special election: Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt or state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
"I enjoy the hard work of going on the campaign trail and talking issues with the voters," he said.
"This will be a low-turnout (special) election," Lonegan said of its being held on a Wednesday three weeks before the regular general election. "It depends on who has the most energized base. It will be door-to-door hand combat."
Lonegan's speech Friday highlighted his platforms, including breaking people from reliance on government assistance, repealing Obamacare, defunding the U.S. Department of Education and removing federal requirements on local school districts, and dealing with scandals in the Obama administration.
"This election be a line-in-the-sand election between a conservative and a liberal," he said. "I will not back off what I believe in. It's too important and too critical."
Vineland resident Pearl Giordano said it was hearing Lonegan in person that made her a big supporter.
"I was very impressed with what he has to say," she said. "You see the sincerity and virtues of Steve. It comes through in his words and actions. You need passion today to get things done. You need someone who will not be afraid and not be backed off."
Millville resident Emma Andrews thanked Lonegan for taking the time to come to South Jersey.
"A lot of candidates don't come here. South Jersey is hungry for information. It's like we're forgotten," she said. "I'm behind him 100 percent. I'll follow him anywhere."
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