Democratic Newark Mayor and senate candidate Cory Booker, center, is surrounded by media as he answers questions in Newark, N.J. on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Newark charter schools.
Mel Evans/AP

Cory Booker stumbles to finish line

Updated

Newark Mayor Cory Booker was supposed to stroll to an easy victory in next week’s New Jersey’s Senate election but the popular Democrat has seen his campaign stumble along the way, leading to a closer-than-expected final stretch.

What was expected to be a sleepy end to the campaign has seen at least some light drama, punctuated with a fiery televised debate and complete with jaw-dropping accusations from GOP nominee Steve Lonegan of “bodies floating around of shooting victims” in the Passaic River under Booker’s tenure as mayor.  The Republican underdog will get another spin under the spotlight on Saturday with a visit from Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin.

The sad news on Thursday that Booker’s 76-year old father, Cary, had passed away has halted his schedule and placed a pallor over the last days of the race. His activities were suspended on Friday, but he will return to the campaign trail on Saturday.

Booker remains a heavy favorite over Lonegan in next Wednesday’s election, though the Tea Party candidate has managed to take some of the shine off the Newark mayor’s luster, not afraid to take shots at his record in Newark and his celebrity status.

After convincingly winning a four-way Democratic primary in August, Booker was expected to have a clear path to win the election and serve out the remainder of the late Frank Lautenberg’s term, especially in New Jersey against the conservative Lonegan.

Booker has gained national attention during his tenure for his public service and his social media outreach.  But the polls have shown Lonegan more competitive than anyone expected in this heavily Democratic state.

“What we’ve learned in this campaign is that Cory Booker cannot, in fact, walk on water. He should have had an easy win — he had name recognition that no other New Jersey politician had,” said Patrick Murray, director of the New Jersey-based Monmouth University poll. “The fact that this is only a 12-13 point race is somewhat of a shock to many.”

In their first debate last Friday, Lonegan jabbed that Newark needed “a leader, not a tweeter,” poking at the social media-savvy Booker. But the Democratic nominee shot back just as much, forcefully reminding voters of Lonegan’s positions against gay marriage, abortion, and tying him to the GOP stalemate in Washington as part of a “fringe Tea Party.”

Earlier that week, Booker had a marked departure from his usual, upbeat TV ads, with his first attack ad, using a clip of Lonegan boasting he was a “right wing radical,” with Booker arguing the Republican was “too extreme for New Jersey.”

The shift, to many observers, was a clear sign of worry, especially when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Political Action Committee stepped in to spend $1 million for ads in support of Booker.

Many Democrats have privately grumbled that missteps, including some self-inflicted wounds, have opened up opportunities Lonegan has exploited. The Democrat was dinged late last month after it was revealed he had exchanged direct messages with an Oregon stripper. Booker said it was just part of his active social media life, and he hadn’t scrutinized her profile.

The accuracy of other anecdotes he’s used on the trail, including a story of a former drug dealer, “T-Bone,” he later befriended, have been called into question. Booker’s also faced questions over his stake in an internet video company and payouts he received from his former law firm, who got contracts with the city.

Booker’s campaign says the race was always going to tighten, and said the drop in polls was only natural.  “When we looked at this race early on there was a level of support among Republicans that, in this environment, was not going to be sustainable,” said Booker spokesman Kevin Griffis.

While Booker may have put this race at least within Lonegan’s grasp, the conservative activist is no Scott Brown — or even Chris Christie, who he challenged from the right in the 2009 gubernatorial primary. Lonegan hasn’t poised himself as able to take advantage of a Democrat’s missteps in a special election with such a conservative record in the solidly blue Garden State.

Lonegan hasn’t shied away from his roots, and Saturday the Tea Party Express is bringing in former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin and conservative radio host Mark Levin for a rally. But while Lonegan’s strategy seems to be to rally his base ahead of Election Day, the tack may not exactly be an asset in a state like New Jersey, where Obama won by 58% and even Christie has taken potshots at the very conservative bloc of his party.

Lonegan has been the beneficiary of some independent expenditures, mainly direct mail and grassroots support from conservative groups, but the GOP cavalry hasn’t come in for Lonegan either. If the race were much closer, as the nominee’s camp has argued, Republicans would be beating down the state to keep the seat that’s been temporarily in their hands, with former GOP Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as the temporary placeholder.

“If anything, the race has exposed that the real Cory Booker doesn’t live up to the myth of Cory Booker,” said one national GOP strategist. “Lonegan, in a state like New Jersey, is beyond a fringe candidate. To Booker, it should be a big wake up call.”

But even some Garden State Democrats said they’re skeptical of the pushback from Booker’s campaign, and that with his acclaim and ability to appeal across the party spectrum, his lead should be much wider.

“At the start of this thing, Booker was the messiah, and Lonegan was the crazy,” said one state Democratic insider. “They’re trying to lower expectations.”

Cory Booker, New Jersey and Senate

Cory Booker stumbles to finish line

Updated