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The sights of summer 2013: banner planes, sand castles and VOTE FOR U.S. SENATE signs.

State residents get a rare chance Tuesday to vote in a special election for their U.S. senator. But as significant as it is, political observers say few people are expected to go to the polls.

Brigid Harrison, a Galloway Township resident who teaches law and politics at Montclair State University, said the race was “probably the most important election that New Jerseyans have faced in any number of years.”

The victor will likely go on to represent the state in the Senate, perhaps for decades, she said, but few people appear to be paying attention. She expects a low turnout.

Primary elections are held for Democrats and Republicans to pick their respective candidates for the general election.

This year’s special primary is one of two elections — the other being the Oct. 16 special election for this seat — to find a replacement for longtime Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in early June at 89 of complications from viral pneumonia.

Whoever wins will serve out the rest of Lautenberg’s term. But since that ends in January 2015, the winner will get to turn right around and begin campaigning for re-election. Four Democrats and two Republicans filed to run, and a handful of polls has shown clear front-runners in both races.

On the Republican side, Steve Lonegan, 57, the former mayor of Bogota, Bergen County, and two-time candidate for governor, is well out in front of the only challenger. Alieta Eck, 62, is a doctor and first-time candidate from Piscataway, Middlesex County, running on a health care reform platform.

Lonegan is a confrontational conservative who has embraced the statewide Republican organization he once scorned. Last month, he told a group of Millville Republicans that he would work to free people from reliance on government programs, repeal Obamacare, defund the U.S. Department of Education and remove federal requirements on local school districts.

He called the Senate contest “a line-in-the-sand election between a conservative and a liberal.”

Locally, he may be best known for a January 2008 group protest outside Middle Township High School against an unpopular plan by then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine to raise tolls on the Garden State Parkway, New Jersey Turnpike and Atlantic City Expressway. School officials ordered the group arrested, and after all but Lonegan sued, the district paid $185,206 to end litigation.

On the Democratic side, Cory Booker, 44, Newark’s high-profile mayor, has consistently polled well in front. He leads with 54 percent of the prospective vote, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, released Wednesday.

Following far behind are U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, who had 12 percent and 11 percent of likely voters. Sheila Oliver, the speaker of the state Assembly, had 4 percent.

The poll also found Booker had a sizable lead, 54 percent to 29 percent, over Lonegan.

“Unless the sky falls, Newark Mayor Cory Booker can start looking for a Washington apartment,” Quinnipiac Polling Director Maurice Carroll said. “He dominates both the Democratic primary and a general election against Steve Lonegan.”

Booker has historically positioned himself as a moderate, drawing criticism from Democrats when he supported Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts on pension reform and school vouchers. He has at times echoed Christie in saying that Democrats and Republicans need to work together.

Booker made a campaign appearance Sunday night in Atlantic City, his second in the past few weeks, drawing a crowd to Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk.

He spoke of the struggles of his parents compared to his own, turning it into a message for the current generation.

“‘You drank deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that you didn’t live,’” he quoted his father. “‘You can just sit back and be fat and happy, or you can be part of a mission to metabolize those blessings and make the world a better place.’”

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who introduced Booker, said of the August primary that “the governor threw us a curveball. But every once in a while, you hit a curveball out of the park, and that’s what we’re going to do on Tuesday.”

Booker jogged through Atlantic City in late July as part of an after-dark tour of several New Jersey cities, but other Democratic candidates criticized him for skipping debates.

Holt, 64, of Hopewell Township, Mercer County, has run as the liberal alternative in the race, supporting taxes on stock trades and polluters. He has also been the only candidate to go directly after Booker, with television ads that attack him as not being progressive.

Pallone, 61, of Long Branch, Monmouth County, has proposed changing the way Medicare reimburses doctors and played up his credentials in Congress and his backing by the Lautenberg family. He also touted efforts to allow sports betting at an event in Atlantic City with U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, this week.

Oliver, 61, of East Orange, Essex County, has supported gun control and has suggested she could bring attention to issues that concern women.

Contact Derek Harper:


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