In NJ Senate race, get ready for a sprint

Sen. Frank Lautenberg listened as Gov. Christie addressed a gathering in Lincoln Park, N.J., in 2011. (MEL EVANS / AP, File)

The second of two stray thoughts on the New Jersey special Senate election as I (fittingly) ride the Amtrak to New York Tuesday night to cover Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s funeral:

(For my take on Democrats' split reaction to Gov. Christie's special election plan, click here).

Get ready for a messy sprint:
“The gun has been fired,” Gov. Christie said Tuesday. “It’s time to go.”

And this isn’t a distance race, it’s the political equivalent of the 100 meters.

Until now, Democrats had been laying out plans to run for Senate in November 2014. They envisioned a long phase of behind-the-scenes jockeying and fund-raising, and, once everyone’s cards were on the table, a series of decisions that would help everyone avoid an ugly primary and ensure that the party keeps the Senate seat they have long held.

No one was even going to officially declare their candidacy until after November’s governor’s race.

Throw out that script.

Senate hopefuls are struggling to even wait until after Lautenberg’s Wednesday funeral to declare their intentions. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone has all but declared that he’s in and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt told Politico that it’s unseemly to talk about the Senate race – then said he was strongly considering getting in.

The big difference for them: unlike 2014, they can run in 2013 without giving up their House seats. They face no immediate risk.

Cory Booker, who had pledged to finish his term as Newark mayor, may now have to break that vow in order to run. (Booker, chided by many for making moves toward a run earlier this year, has remained coy).

His name recognition and popularity still make him the heavy favorite, but challengers who may have sat out in 2014 are ready to test him.

No Republicans, meanwhile, had even signaled that they intended to run. Now, someone from the GOP is going to have to put together a campaign and try to find a way to build their name and overcome Democrats’ long-time edge in Jersey in about four months.

Bottom line: on Monday the New Jersey Senate primary was still a year away. Today, it’s only 10 weeks away. The general election that was a year-and-a-half away will be here before Halloween.

After this week, when the political world finishes its tributes to Lautenberg, there will be no more waiting, no more playing coy, no more subtle maneuvering. If you’re a New Jersey politico, tear up your summer plans. The race is on, and there won’t be any time for relaxing at the shore.