GLASSBORO, N.J. – Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan lashed out at Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker in their final debate on Wednesday, saying too much of the state's income and sales tax money "gets poured into a big black hole" in Booker's city and its residents may not be able to swim in its river because of all the shooting victims' floating bodies.
Booker fired back that Lonegan, a former Bogota mayor, "ran his city into a ditch and had to ask for a bailout" and that his Senate campaign was based on insults, condemnations and shut-down politics.
And so it went in their second debate, an intense one-hour back-and-forth broadcast live on NBC affiliates in New York and Philadelphia. The election, to fill the remaining year of the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg's term, is Oct. 16.
Booker and Lonegan, who were sharp-tongued in their first debate Oct. 4, stepped their rhetoric up a notch in their final showdown at Rowan University.
Booker, in his second term as mayor of the state's largest city, fielded questions about its ongoing crime problem, his Hollywood connections and stories of personal heroics that some say stretched the truth. Lonegan was asked about his affiliation with the tea party, his support for the government shutdown and his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Lonegan's most controversial comment came while advocating for a rollback of government environmental regulations.
"You may not be able to swim in that river, but it's probably, I think, because of all the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city," he said to Booker.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," a stunned Booker replied.
Booker said the comment about floating bodies was insulting to people living in cities, but Lonegan defended it, saying it illustrated the point that violent crime is abundant.
Lonegan is hoping to cut into Booker's comfortable lead. Booker has been forced to work harder than he may have expected to after coasting through the Democratic primary.
Lonegan, a former state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, has been relentless. He held a press conference on a Newark street corner where someone had just been killed to call attention to city violence. He rolled out a red carpet while Booker was in California raising money with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. And he showed up outside a derelict property Booker once owned to highlight its decrepit condition.
Booker has sought to portray his opponent as an extremist and ideologue, like the House Republicans who've shut down the government to stall the nation's new health care law.
"Sending him to Washington would be like pouring gasoline on a fire," Booker said.
Lonegan said he supports the shutdown because the health care law should be delayed and said he admires politicians who are unafraid to "advocate for liberty," such as Texas' U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky's U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Florida's U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Booker circulated a petition to end the government shutdown and said politicians are sent to Washington "to work together and solve our problems." Asked to give Congress a grade, Booker gave it an F while Lonegan awarded a B.
Lonegan also said he would not have accepted federal aid after Superstorm Sandy unless Congress made corresponding spending cuts. Booker essentially called Lonegan a hypocrite, noting that Lonegan sought $500,000 in state aid while mayor of Bogota and accepted $350,000. Lonegan said suburban towns pay far more in taxes than they get back.
Booker's campaign is banking on the fact that Lonegan's views are far to the right of those of a majority of New Jersey residents, who support abortion and gay marriage and voted to return President Barack Obama to office for a second term.
New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in more than 40 years.