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Democrat darling Cory Booker facing battle as NJ Senate race tightens

NJ Senate Race 2013.jpg

Oct. 4, 2013: Cory Booker (l.) looks on as Republican Steve Lonegan answers a question during their first debate of the U.S. Senate campaign in Trenton, N.J. Booker is Newark's two-term mayor. Lonegan is the former state director of a conservative advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, and former mayor of Bogota, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

As one of the Democratic Party's rising stars, Cory Booker was supposed to have a cakewalk to the U.S. Senate.

Booker, the charismatic mayor of Newark, faces conservative activist Steve Lonegan in the Oct. 16 special election to finish the term of Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. While Booker is still considered a heavy favorite, a 35-point lead he held just two months ago has dwindled to 12 points, according to recent polls. Political observers say it is common for a race to tighten as election day approaches, but that doesn't completely explain a Tea Party favorite closing the gap on Booker in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama.

“My sense is that the numbers reflect complacency in the Booker campaign,” Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, told FoxNews.com. “The Booker people wrote off Lonegan as a right-wing crank and small-town mayor. Booker was on the fast track to election, and there was a growing realization that he saw the race wrapped up and that’s always a mistake.

“It’s one thing to be confident. It’s another to be complacent.”

The race has national implications, as the Republicans are hoping to capture the Senate in 2014. A victory in New Jersey, a blue state that nonetheless has a Republican governor in Chris Christie, could show that President Obama's falling approval numbers bode well for the GOP. The Garden State Senate seat will be up for regular election again next year.

“Booker was on the fast track to election, and there was a growing realization that he saw the race wrapped up and that’s always a mistake."

- Ross Baker, Rutgers University political science professor

Lonegan, 57 -- whose camp insists internal polling shows he is within just three percentage points of Booker, 44 -- has spent just $1.36 million on the race, compared with Booker's $11.5 million. But the onetime mayor of the small suburban enclave of Bogota has made it a bruising campaign, spotlighting a handful of issues that have proven damaging to Booker.

Among them is the revelation that Booker, an avid Twitter user, communicated with an Oregon stripper via the social media forum. In one direct message, Booker told exotic dancer Lynsie Lee, “The East Coast loves you and by the East Coast, I mean me.”

While his digital missives were not particularly spicy, and Booker, 44, is not and never has been married, Lonegan sought to paint the communications as frivolous and beneath the office both men seek.

“New Jersey needs a leader, not a tweeter,” Lonegan said at a debate Friday. 

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Booker leading by 12 points. 

Booker has also taken heat for telling stories about a former drug dealer named "T-Bone," whom he helped put on the straight and narrow but whom no one seems able to produce. Rutgers University history professor Clement Price, a friend and mentor to Booker, told the National Review that Booker admitted to him that T-Bone was an “invention.” Though Booker still insists T-Bone is flesh and bone, he no longer refers to him on the stump.  

For his part, Booker has blasted Lonegan as a right wing extremist. At last week’s debate, Booker called Lonegan part of the “Tea Party fringe hijacking the government to get what they want.”

Lonegan has close ties to Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group heavily funded by oil and gas billionaires Charles and David Koch, having served as the group's New Jersey state director.

In 2006, Lonegan sought a public referendum to make English the official language of Bogota after CBS Outdoor refused his request to remove a McDonald’s ad in Spanish from a billboard in town. A year later, he accused local authorities—who were in the middle of tough labor negotiations with his office—of targeting him with accusations that he had hired two undocumented immigrants to put together signs for American for Prosperity.