Holt: Is celebrity a qualification for Senate?

Mayor Cory A. Booker claps after taking the formal oath of office in Newark, N.J., Saturday, July 1, 2006. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen)

WASHINGTON – Are celebrity and strong fund-raising qualifications to enter the U.S. Senate?

Rush Holt asked that Monday as he became the latest Democratic Senate candidate to try to draw a contrast with heavy favorite Cory Booker.

“They really are strengths, fund-raising and celebrity, but are these really strengths for the U.S. Senate?” Holt, a Central Jersey Congressman, asked in a conference call with reporters. “My strengths are my experience, my unique experience, and I mean unique, and my real accomplishments.”

Holt, who has built his campaign persona around his background as an astrophysicist and his Jeopardy! victory over supercomputer Watson, launched the latest in a series of Web ads today, this one calling for a plan to keep student loan rates tied to the same low interest rates the Federal Reserve offers to Wall Street banks.

While Booker has star power, support of the party establishment and a huge fund-raising lead, Holt has been trying to argue that he is the candidate of substance in the four-way Democratic primary.

“This has to be a campaign about ideas. That’s what I’m all about, that’s what I think New Jerseyans want in their senator,” Holt said. His videos, he added, are “an effort to make the campaign relevant to the major concerns that New Jerseyans have.”

As for basing his first two ads on attacking Wall Street, Holt said, "I’m making the point that I’m not tied to Wall Street – I’ll let it go at that."

(Holt also said he gets campaign money from Wall Street employees. Booker has at times been criticized on the left for his relationship with big banks).

Jumping on a similar anti-celebrity theme, another candidate, Shore-area Congressman Frank Pallone, posted a Web ad Monday that touted his “typical Jersey story.”

“New Jersey needs a senator who drives a Chevy. Let the other guys take the limo,” Pallone says in the spot. It’s a shorter version of a longer biographical ad he released last week.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is also running for the Democratic nomination.

Booker's campaign fired back at the assertion that "celebrity" is driving his success.

“Mayor Booker has attracted more than $200 million for Newark schools, cut crime and kick-started a building boom that has resulted in new jobs and opportunity for Newark residents. It’s that record of bringing people together to get things done that he’s running on. It’s that record that sets him apart from Washington politicians,” said Booker campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis. “Additionally, the mayor’s platform is going to help him make New Jersey’s issues the nation’s issues, just as he’s been able to bring Newark’s challenges to the attention of a national audience.”

Booker has so far released policy plans to spark investments in tech jobs and fight child poverty. He has also highlighted his work in Newark as the reason he says there is such interest in his candidacy -- in campaign ads he points to businesses he drew to the city, and the falling murder rate during his tenure.

Some of his allies have, though, have also cited Booker’s fame and fund-raising prowess as a true advantage, both in drawing national attention to causes he will fight for in the Senate and in helping fellow Democrats down the ballot in New Jersey.

Republicans Steve Lonegan and Alieta Eck are competing in the GOP primary.

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