Poll shows problems for Lautenberg rivals

One of the more popular parlor games in Jersey politics these days is handicapping the field of which ambitious Democrats may try to take a run at U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg in 2014.

Lautenberg, the thinking goes, has one of only three statewide elected offices, and with the formidable Gov. Christie in one, and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez in the other, and looking likely to win re-election next month, a bevy of ambitious Democrats are hungrily circling the 88-year-old Lautenberg, seeing his seat as the one most within reach.

A recent poll from Monmouth University and my old friends at the Asbury Park Press, though, shows serious challenges for a couple of the people mentioned as likely Lautenberg rivals, including South Jersey’s Steve Sweeney, the state Senate president who has made no secret of his ambitions for higher office.

The poll is focused on Christie and the Democrats who might run against him next year, but the numbers also give us a picture of where the big names stand statewide, and it's clear that Sweeney and Congressman Frank Pallone, another potential Lautenberg challenger, have a lot of ground to cover to make a real run for a seat in DC’s most exclusive club.

Their big weakness is name recognition – a critical attribute but one that is difficult to build in a state that is split between two media markets that focus on Philly and New York much more than the unruly neighbor in between. Sweeney, from Gloucester County, is familiar to just 35 percent of voters statewide (and only 19 percent view him favorably). Pallone is at 25 percent name recognition, with a 17 percent approval rating.

Compare that to Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who is often mentioned as a potential statewide candidate in 2013, against Christie, in 2014 for Senate, or for both. He is familiar to 62 percent of voters, according to Monmouth U, and 49 percent of view him favorably. Former Gov. Dick Codey, a state Senator these days, is known to 48 percent of voters. From there, the figures drop off a cliff for Democrats like Sweeney and Pallone. (Inquirer colleague Matt Katz has a breakdown of the implications for the looming governor’s race over at The Christie Chronicles).

Lautenberg wasn’t included in the Monmouth poll but the Inquirer’s recent New Jersey poll found that 62 percent of likely voters were familiar with the long-time Senator, and 34 percent said they saw him strongly or somewhat favorably.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, since we’re dealing with two different polls and the Inquirer looked at likely voters only, but we can get a sense of the overall landscape: Lautenberg isn’t overwhelmingly loved, but he’s known a lot better than his potential foes, other than Booker.

It all means that while Democrats watch Lautenberg, hoping he’ll retire, hinting that they’ll primary him if he doesn’t, the combatant senator might not be run out of DC so easily, despite his age (he’ll turn 90 at the start of his 2014 re-election fight) and the fact that he’s not that well liked for someone who has held statewide office for the better part of 30 years.

(Republicans would also have something to say about the 2014 race, but other than Christie no one from the GOP has won statewide in Jersey since 1997).

So much hinges on Booker. He appears to be the strongest challenger to Christie, and even if he can’t beat the governor, a strong performance could make him the presumptive Democratic nominee for Senate in 2014.

On the other hand, a bad loss to Christie might soften up Booker and open the door for other challengers, such as Sweeney and Pallone.

But to win statewide, those two would each have a lot of ground to make up when it comes to that most basic element of winning – making sure voters actually know who you are.