TRENTON — In a fiery and at times vitriolic first debate, U.S. Senate candidates Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan spent the majority of their hour on stage accusing one anther of the same thing: extremism.
Booker, the mayor of Newark and frontrunner in the special senate election, charged again and again that Lonegan would make "what's wrong with Washington worse" and join what he called the "fringe of Tea Party people" staging the current government shutdown.
While Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota trailing by more than 10 points in most polls, described Booker repeatedly as a "far-left-wing liberal" in favor of outsize government and President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Throughout the race, Lonegan has kept his campaign focused on Booker, and attacking his record, while the Newark mayor has refrained, until recent weeks, from criticizing his opponent. But at Friday's debate, hosted at WPVI-TV here in Trenton, both candidates came out ready for a combative match-up, using nearly every question to slam the other's views.
"What New Jersey needs is a leader not a tweeter," Lonegan said at one point, targeting Booker's massive following on the social media site.
"This is what we have in Washington," Booker said, arguing that Lonegan would add to partisan gridlock in Congress. "This guy so far tonight has called me delusional, and thrown other epithets my way — extremely volatile, divisive language. This is what we will get in Washington."
"What I simply want to talk to you about is the facts and stands on positions," Booker said, pointing to Lonegan's opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. "Please listen to what he's saying," Booker urged viewers.
On multiple occasions, Lonegan brought up Booker's severance agreement with his former law firm, Trenk DiPasquale, where he served as partner before leaving for City Hall in 2006. The mayor's tax returns, shared last month with reporters, showed he made nearly $700,000 from the firm as part of the buy-out.
"The only example of economic growth I can find in Newark is the growth of Cory Booker's bank account," Lonegan said.
Lonegan urged Booker to release the terms of the severance agreement, saying later that Booker's personal financials warrant "being investigated." Booker said he has disclosed details about the buy-out, but suggested he would not release documentation of the agreement itself.
"I said clearly the buyout was based solely on my stake in the business," Booker said in the WPVI-TV newsroom after the debate. "Period. Any other questions?"
Booker also reiterated to reporters that Lonegan is "on the extremes" and said the election, now less than two weeks away, would ultimately be "a referendum on the Tea Party in Washington."
He also insisted that his campaign had not taken a negative turn. "At the end of the day, the way he was attacking me, and the kind of language and epithets he was using, just go to further be a testament to what I'm saying," Booker said. "I was positive. I was almost surprised at the epithets he threw my way."
Lonegan, who spoke to reporters after Booker, said his opponent was the one who "opened up with all the name-calling about extremism and the Tea Party."
"Mr. Booker attacks my conservative principles on which this nation was built — what he calls 'extremism,'" Lonegan said. "They must have done some polling and they found something in their polling about using the term, 'Tea Party.'
The debate was streamed live online Friday afternoon and will be broadcast on television Sunday evening throughout the state before a second and final general election debate next week.