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New Jersey voters head to the polls on Tuesday to choose candidates for the special election to replace Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. But barring a surprise upset, the only real mystery about the election is how big Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s margin of victory will be in the Democratic primary.
Booker, 44, a rising star politico who has made no secret of his aspirations for national office, has been the unequivocal front-runner in the race for months, besting three of the state’s well-known Democrats in poll after poll.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found 54 percent of likely Democratic voters backed Booker in the race, a 37-point lead over Rep. Frank Pallone, his closest competitor, who had just 17 percent support. Rep. Rush Holt trailed with 15 percent support, followed by state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who had just 5 percent.
Booker has maintained his lead in spite of several unflattering stories in recent weeks questioning his ties to his former law firm, which has made big money off representing clients with issues before the city of Newark, and his role in an online startup with ties to major political donors in Silicon Valley.
His opponents have also tried to make an issue of his political celebrity and his uncanny ability to generate media coverage through his use of Twitter and other social media — implying he’s running more out of ego than for the good of New Jersey voters.
In June, the Lautenberg family threw its backing behind Pallone in the primary, saying that, like their father, Pallone “knows that to be effective you must put New Jersey and your principles first, not your own glory.”
The Lautenbergs were echoing the late senator’s complaints about Booker after the Newark mayor announced late last year he would explore a run for Senate in 2014 — long before Lautenberg had even announced his political intentions.
But none of the criticism seemed to stick — nor did questions about Booker’s political credibility. Holt launched an ad last week accusing Booker of being soft on issues like climate change and domestic spying.
“Cory may be the front-runner in this race, but he’s no progressive,” Holt said in the ad.
Turnout is expected to be low in Tuesday’s voting. Barring an upset, Booker is expected to face Republican businessman Steve Lonegan in the Oct. 16 special election.