By Jonathan Tamari
TRENTON – This debate was not for the faint hearted.
Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan swung roundhouse punches from the moment their first debate began Friday afternoon.
“What New Jersey needs, sir, is a leader not a tweeter,” Lonegan said in the line of the debate.
Booker said Lonegan had “extreme views” and “views that are extreme” and used language that was “extremely volatile” and favors “extreme tea party views” to pick only a tiny, tiny fraction of the examples.
At one point a moderator said to Lonegan, “you look irritated.” At another the two hosts seemed at a loss for words as they candidates unloaded. The moderators paused until one finally said, “OK” and tried to move to the next topic.
(As Gannett New Jersey’s Mike Symons wrote on Twitter, don’t use “extreme” in any drinking games if you watch this debate).
Here are a few quick impressions of the Friday debate, which airs Sunday in Philadelphia 9:30 a.m. on WPVI.
No more nice mayor
Here was Booker speaking about Lonegan the night he won the Democratic primary:
“He’s a person of strong beliefs and I’ve found out already, even stronger rhetoric,” Booker said. “I will match his negative attacks with positive vision.”
That seemed to hold until recent polls showed a tightening race. This week Booker launched a television ad hitting Lonegan for being too extreme, and Booker went after his opponent from almost the first words of the debate. Answering the very first question of the event, Booker thanked the hosts and then said this:
“In this election New Jersey could not have a clearer choice. We have two people with very distinctive views about moving forward: my opponent who in the last year has run the New Jersey tea party organization, and myself who’s had to run the state’s largest city.”
In that same answer he went on to say Lonegan would “ban all abortion, including rape and incest,” privatize Social Security and eliminate the minimum wage.
Booker was hammered in his second primary debate as trailing opponents tried to make up ground – and that was by mild-mannered members of his own party. He wasn’t going to be caught flat-footed this time around, not by an opponent known for being combative and who once began a debate with Gov. Christie by saying to the audience, “let the missiles fly.”
Booker, facing a closer-than-expected race, still dropped in his talking points about cooperation and bringing people together (did you know he has worked with Christie?), but only after dropping the hammer on Lonegan’s “extremism.”
Lonegan fires away
Of course, Booker was probably anticipating an aggressive attack from Lonegan, and the sharp-tongued mayor lived up to expectations.
Armed with statistics and a cutting way of delivering them, Lonegan hammered away at Booker’s record in Newark, while calling him the extremist – an extreme liberal.
“You know, mayor,” Lonegan said, “you talk violent crime being down, tell that to the families of 702 people shot to death in the streets of your city while you're mayor, while you’re parading around California with a bunch of Hollywood elite.”
Later he said, “the only example of economic growth as mayor of Newark is you lining your pockets” (a charge Booker emphatically denied).
Lonegan also referred repeatedly to Newark’s 14 percent unemployment rate.
It was lively stuff – though we’ll see how fresh it feels in two weeks, because you can expect to hear these same themes over and over in the final dash to the Oct. 16 election.
Booker used the word “extreme” or “tea party” or both in nearly every single answer he gave. Yes, he reiterated his own well-known, largely liberal views, but quickly pivoted each time to painting Lonegan, who has never hid his conservative beliefs, as well out of step with New Jersey voters on abortion, same-sex marriage, social security, gun laws and other issues.
"This guy is consistent, if anything, in his extremist views," Booker told reporters after the debate.
Lonegan will keep plugging away with the strategy that has pulled him to within 12 or so percentage points, according to public opinion polls: portraying Booker as a mayor who is better at being famous than at leading Newark.
“You had a celebrity candidate endorsed by Hollywood, and now it’s about substance,” Lonegan said after the debate.
Booker: referendum on the tea party
The government shutdown and debt ceiling stand off gave Booker a high-profile, ongoing example as he made his arguments about “extremism” in government.
Banking on New Jerseyans siding with Democrats and blaming Republicans for the current stalemate, he said this election would be a referendum on the tea party and warned that Lonegan would be part of the same wing of the GOP as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“What you see down in Washington right is that tea party fringe, people like Ted Cruz, who my opponent says he admires, and others hijacking our government in order to get what they want,” Booker said.
After the debate, he said the election would be “a referendum on the tea party in Washington.”
“This election will be in many (be about) what New Jerseyans want to have in Washington -- somebody who will take the tea party agenda and drive it even further, makes what’s wrong with Washington worse, or sending someone down there who has a really good track record of working with people of all parties,” Booker said.
Lonegan has tweeted his admiration for Cruz and has very publicly urged Republicans to stand strong in the current shutdown. Asked about that after the debate Lonegan said that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are the ones being unreasonable by refusing to negotiate changes to Obama’s health law during the budget fight.
Asked if he identifies with the tea party Lonegan said:
“I identify with anybody who is going to stand up to big government, whether it’s the conservative movement, the tea party movement, the republican party, the libertarian movement, I’m all of those guys and I want them all with me.”
My colleague Andrew Seidman will have a full report on the debate on Inquirer.com, Philly.com and in Saturday's Inquirer.
You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.