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All Eyes on Lautenberg, Booker in N.J. Speculation Game

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Lautenberg will be 89 in January, leading to speculation about his future. Many see Booker as the logical choice to run for the Senate seat, regardless of whether Lautenberg will run again, but the Newark mayor is reportedly also considering a gubernatorial bid.

Even Atlantic City bookmakers might be stumped setting the odds for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s political future in 2014.

While the senator, who will be 89 in January, has indicated he will seek another term, there is no other possible Senate retirement that sparks more speculation and uncomfortable feelings.

Even if the New Jersey Democrat runs, the odds he will face a primary from a restive group of ambitious Democrats in the state seem good. The top two names floated by New Jersey Democrats are Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.

“People will think about the race, even if Sen. Lautenberg is a candidate,” one New Jersey Democratic strategist said. “They may not go to the starting line, but there will be jostling.”

The thought of Lautenberg winning another term makes Democrats from Trenton to Capitol Hill uneasy, to say the least. If Republican Gov. Chris Christie is re-elected in 2013 and if Lautenberg is re-elected as a 90-year-old in 2014 and dies in office, Christie would appoint a successor, presumably a Republican.

But that doesn’t seem to be a concern for Lautenberg, who said last week that he’s focused solely on the recovery efforts from superstorm Sandy and the lame-duck session. “Right now, I’m thinking about Sandy. ... Right now I’m thinking about the fiscal situation,” Lautenberg said after declining to comment on his re-election outlook.

So state operatives are left to speculate. For every strategist who is convinced he will retire, there is another who says he will hold on.

“There’s not that much leverage to kind of force the issue,” a New Jersey Democrat with ties to the delegation said. “He gave up his seat once willingly; he didn’t like that. I don’t think he’ll do that again. It won’t be easy for him to do that again, that’s for sure.”

The operative was referring to Lautenberg’s 2002 Senate run. He came out of retirement and essentially saved the seat after Democratic Sen. Robert G. Torricelli was forced out of his re-election race.

Meanwhile, Booker’s national profile increases with each passing week, as does the speculation about his future. The tone of these discussions are as if the Senate race is an open-seat contest.

Bergen County Democratic Party Chairman Lou Stellato insists that the party’s energy needs to be directed toward defeating Christie, who currently has sky-high approval ratings, in the 2013 gubernatorial race.

“There are other battles to fight before we get to that war,” Stellato said about the Senate speculation. “We have to keep focus.”

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