Republican Douglas Forrester finally shared a stage Wednesday with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, calling his opponent in the Senate race a representative of "failed policies of the past.''
"Nine months ago I entered this race with a promise to retire Bob Torricelli. I kept that promise,'' Forrester said in his first debate against Lautenberg, who joined the race after Torricelli quit his re-election bid on Sept. 30.
Lautenberg, who retired in 2001 after 18 years in the Senate, noted that Forrester is no longer running against Torricelli. "Perhaps he didn't know that,'' Lautenberg said.
Forrester, behind in the polls, has agitated for weeks to debate Lautenberg. Lautenberg delayed the first encounter until Wednesday, six days before the election.
At Lautenberg's insistence, four minor-party candidates participated during the first hour, leaving only 30 minutes for Lautenberg and Forrester to battle directly.
Forrester pressed Lautenberg to defend his votes to cut defense spending and against development of missile defense. Lautenberg also returned to familiar campaign themes, urging Forrester to release his tax returns and questioning his commitment to gun control.
Polls show Forrester, even after campaigning for nine months and spending $7 million of his own money, remains unknown to a large number of New Jersey voters. A second debate, scheduled for Saturday, may be his last chance to introduce himself.
Although Forrester's campaign has suggested that the 78-year-old Lautenberg has lost a step, the Republican downplayed the age issue, focusing on Lautenberg's voting record.
Forrester said one of his priorities, if elected, would be to repeal a Social Security tax enacted in 1983 under President Reagan. He also said he would vote to make permanent the tax cuts enacted by President Bush.
Lautenberg called the Bush tax cuts "outrageous'' because they mainly benefit the rich.
The candidates also sparred over national defense, with Forrester saying Lautenberg repeatedly voted to cut defense and intelligence spending.
"We are playing catchup on defense, we are playing catchup on intelligence gathering, because Mr. Lautenberg voted wrongly,'' he said.
Lautenberg, who enlisted in the Army in World War II, replied: "Mr. Forrester makes these bold claims about how tough he would be ... but when he had chance to serve, to put on his country's uniform, he chose not to.''
Forrester called that "an unfortunate attack,'' saying he registered for the draft when he turned 18 and would have served if called.