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It’s man vs. the machine: Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. are on track to have a New Jersey-style knockout primary for the Democratic Senate nod in 2014.
“It changes the landscape,” Pallone said minutes after Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s retirement announcement. “I’ve always been interested in the Senate, and I’m going to continue to explore it.”
This brewing political battle would match an outsider with an army of Twitter followers, wealthy celebrity connections and television news fame against a congressman who has spent years currying favor with the state establishment to run for this very seat.
Immediately, national Democrats predicted Booker would have an easy walk to the nomination. But some Garden State operatives are dubious.
Booker upset party elders when he announced his exploratory committee in mid-December. Many Lautenberg loyalists are furious with him for not being patient and allowing Lautenberg a graceful exit. In the end, Booker only needed to wait two months to make his move.
Meanwhile, Pallone bent over backward to take the opposite approach as he quietly prepared for a run.
“Today’s about Frank Lautenberg,” Pallone repeated in the interview. He declined to discuss an official announcement or future strategy.
But there’s also a practical reason the New Jersey Democratic establishment blessing is important. A county Democratic Party’s endorsement gives a candidate preferential treatment on the ballot, known locally as “the line.”
“They can’t vote for you if they can’t find you [on the ballot],” said one Washington Democratic strategist who is familiar with New Jersey politics.
It is almost impossible to win a primary without that advantage. Sources say Pallone has quietly put everything into place for a longtime congressman to leverage the line.
Meanwhile, many local Democrats wonder whether Booker has put the line in jeopardy with his eagerness. Several influential county chairmen contacted by CQ Roll Call this week said Booker has made serious miscalculations in the past few weeks.
But the same top Democrats hailed Booker’s appearances around the state, including his capacity to fundraise, taking the pressure off party leadership to bring in bucks.
“He didn’t help himself, but he’s got a lot of other things going for him that may make up for it by next year,” one county chairman said.
Booker’s brand of politics is unique, and his national status might test the efficacy of the line. Plus, public polls show he starts the race with a big advantage.
Booker had a commanding lead over a field that included Lautenberg, Pallone, state Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver in a Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released Thursday.