With comments about memory loss and rambling speeches, New Jersey Republicans are indirectly raising the question: Is 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg too old to run for the Senate?

GOP challenger Douglas Forrester's campaign has been saying the Democratic former senator is out of touch on the issues and is avoiding debates because his mind "wanders.''

"Age is not the issue, hypocrisy is the issue,'' said Forrester campaign manager Bill Pascoe. "More importantly is whether he is up to the job.''

Lautenberg, who joined the race this month after Sen. Robert Torricelli dropped out, leads Forrester in most polls. However, a survey released Tuesday showed New Jersey residents are learning who Forrester is and many have a favorable opinion.

In Lautenberg's first campaign, in 1982, it was he who made an issue of age with his opponent, 72-year-old Millicent Fenwick. He questioned her "capacity'' to be a senator, described her as "eccentric,'' and wondered if she would serve long enough to develop the power that comes with seniority.

Lautenberg says he is a different story and, with 18 years of experience under his belt, he would hit the ground running if elected.

In a recent interview, Lautenberg said questions could legitimately be raised about whether a senior citizen who is bedridden, or has no prior political experience, should be starting a career in the Senate.

But questions about age should not apply to him, "unless you want to say to the senior citizen community across this state, 'Listen, I don't care what your experience is, I don't care what your fitness is, what your physical ability to serve, your mental ability, you shouldn't be serving.'''

Democrats say the criticism involving Lautenberg's age is a a mark of desperation because Forrester is behind.

"Perhaps they need more years of maturity to respect those who have served and sacrificed for others,'' said Rich McGrath, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

According to the 2000 census, there are 1.13 million New Jersey residents older than 65. About 6.4 percent of those residents are older than 75.

The national GOP Senate campaign began airing network television ads Tuesday saying Lautenberg is "shamelessly ducking the public'' by not debating.

The candidates agreed some time ago to debate on television three days before the election, and they now have agreed to debate on Oct. 30, too.