TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The field was set Monday for New Jersey's special U.S. Senate election as two polls showed what observers suspected: Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the early front-runner for the seat.
With varying degrees of fanfare, candidates or their surrogates showed up Monday at the Division of Elections office to file their petitions for an election that no one knew was coming until a week ago.
All of them touted that they easily surpassed the 1,000 signatures required, with the highest tallies reaching more than 7,000. One came with an entourage of two dozen, one walked into the building alone, toting a box full of petitions as staffers stood back. The candidates range from one who hasn't run for office before to one who's been elected more than a dozen times. Even Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University political scientist, was on hand offering instant analysis as candidates filed their petitions.
One hopeful, Republican Steve Lonegan, proclaimed that the election would be historic.
It will certainly be unlike anything New Jersey has seen in generations, with the primary set for Aug. 13, the peak of vacation season in a state that cherishes its trips down the shore, and the election set for three weeks before the general election, when the governor's race will be on the ballot.
The Senate seat opened a week ago when Sen. Frank Lautenberg died. Gov. Chris Christie appointed his state attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa, to fill the seat temporarily and called a special election as fast as the law allows.
With the deadline looming, perhaps the biggest mystery was whether any Republicans besides Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota and former state director of Americans for Prosperity, would enter. One did: Somerset physician Alieta Eck, who said she opposes President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul but said she is still formulating stances on other issues.
Lonegan, who has twice lost gubernatorial primaries, had about two dozen supporters with him. One taped a Lonegan sign to a wall, and it remained in view as Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone spoke on camera a few minutes later. Lonegan pledged to unite tea party groups and establishment Republicans.
"I don't care which of the Democrats wins that primary," he said. "They're all the same. They're all rubber stamps for Barack Obama."
Besides her disdain for the health care policy, Eck didn't lay out many specifics, but, like Lonegan, criticized the government in general. "The government can be a burden on families," she said.
On the Democratic side, the candidates were all expected: Booker, U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
Booker is better known and has broader support than the others, according to polls released Monday. More than half the Democrats favored Booker over the two congressmen, both the Rutgers-Eagleton and Quinnipiac Polls showed. Both polls had margins of error of at least plus or minus 5 percentage points in their surveys of Democratic voters. The Quinnipiac poll also showed any of the three Democrats ahead in a matchup with Lonegan.
Pallone, who carried in his own box of petitions, said that he believes that government can help solve problems — not just create them — and says he should stand out because of his record over 25 years in Congress, including as one of the authors of Obama's health care overhaul.
He mostly declined to take any shots at the other candidates, though he did get in one dig at Booker, a prolific Twitter user, when he was asked if he would join Booker in a pledge not to run a negative campaign.
"Do I have to do this in 140 characters?" he asked.
Booker, who held two weekend campaign kickoff events, and Holt were the only candidates not to submit petitions in person.
But in a telephone interview later, Holt, like Pallone, said he was running on a record that would show he's the progressive in the election. "It's not just a vocal commitment to progressive values," he said. "It is a real record of accomplishment."
Oliver filed in the last hour before the 4 p.m. deadline. She said one reason to run was that all 14 members of the state's congressional delegation are men. If women don't run, she said, they won't get any of those seats.
She said that the unusual election schedule makes it unpredictable. "This is anybody's race to win," she in a phone interview after she filed. "The challenge will be which of the candidates is best able to turn out their base."
Murray, the Monmouth University analyst, did not say anyone could win, but he said that with a low turnout and enough union support, Pallone may have a shot at beating Booker in the primary.
Associated Press writers Rema Rahman and Angela Delli Santi contributed to this report. Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill .