TRENTON — In the first face-to-face showdown of their U.S. Senate campaign, Democrat Cory Booker repeatedly characterized his opponent's positions as "Tea Party extremism," while Republican Steve Lonegan frequently referred to Booker as a "left-wing liberal" and protégé of President Barack Obama.
The two attacked each other's positions on issues ranging from the government shutdown to abortion in a lively one-hour debate ahead of the Oct. 16 special election to fill the remaining 15 months of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg's term.
Lonegan, 57, slammed Booker's character early by saying, "New Jersey needs a leader, not a tweeter," a reference to Booker's prolific use of social media. He tweets many times a day and has 1.4 million Twitter followers.
Booker 44, invoked Lonegan's association with what he called the "Tea Party fringe" throughout the debate, a group he blamed for "hijacking" the federal government over implementation of the new federal health care law. Lonegan is the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers.
Lonegan is also the former mayor of a small Bergen County municipality, Bogota. Booker is serving his second term as mayor of Newark, the state's largest city.
"If you listen to his rhetoric, it seems obvious that if he goes down to Washington, he'll make what's wrong with Washington worse," said Booker.
Booker supports the nation's new health insurance system while Lonegan applauds the efforts of House Republicans to shut down the government rather than fund the overhaul. Lonegan evoked Obama's name so often that Booker finally chided him that he was not debating the president.
Gov. Chris Christie endorsed fellow Republican Lonegan, but it was Booker who dropped the governor's name when asked who he's compromised with politically. Booker said he and Christie found common ground on education and have managed to improve Newark schools by working together.
Lonegan said the dropout rate remains too high.
With views that differ on most issues, the two also sparred over abortion, raising the minimum wage and legalizing same-sex marriage (Booker supports all three while Lonegan is opposed), but they managed to find common ground on government spying (both opposed) and the need to revamp the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which both support.
Booker said he would not release his separation agreement with his former law firm, Trenk DiPasquale in West Orange, which has paid him $700,000 since he became mayor, while winning $2 million worth of work with the city's housing authority and watershed. Lonegan called for an investigation.
"Mayor, you've made your entire fortune as mayor of Newark," Lonegan said. "The only example of economic growth in the city of Newark is you lining your pockets."
Booker said the payments were compensation for his stake in a law firm he helped create and called on his opponent to release 15 years' worth of tax returns, as Booker has done.
Booker also defended his frequent out-of-state travel, saying it has brought unparalleled investment and development to the state's largest city.
The debate will be televised locally on WABC-TV in New York and WPVI-TV in Philadelphia on Sunday morning. The candidates will meet again Tuesday night.