NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cory Booker, the charismatic mayor of New Jersey's largest city, is heavily favored to beat conservative activist Steve Lonegan when voters head to the polls on Wednesday in a special election to fill New Jersey's vacant U.S. Senate seat.
A Quinnipiac poll on Tuesday found Booker, the Democrat mayor of Newark, ahead of Republican Lonegan, a former small-town mayor with limited name recognition but a flair for attention-grabbing events, by a margin of 54 to 40 percent.
David Redlawsk, the director of the Eagleton poll, which in a poll released on Monday gave Booker a 58 to 36 percent lead over Lonegan, said the race will come down to turn-out.
"Here's the key: if the Booker campaign can turn out urban voters and Democrats who say they will vote, he will be in the range we estimate," said Redlawsk.
In recent weeks, Lonegan, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the conservative Koch brothers, has appeared to close in on Booker.
But after a series of debate performances in which Lonegan touted his conservatism, applauding Republicans in government for their role in the federal government's shutdown, Booker began to rebound.
"The debates presented a stark picture of the differences between the candidates, which appears to have led independents to prefer Booker," said Redlawsk.
For a time, it was thought that Booker would challenge the state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who is up for re-election in November. But Christie's popularity has remained high since superstorm Sandy crashed into the Jersey Shore last October.
Instead, last December, Booker said he was exploring a bid for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat. A month later, Lautenberg announced he would retire.
In June, Lautenberg died of pneumonia and Christie called a special election to fill the seat.
Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate who was first elected Newark mayor in 2006, rocketed to fame as a booster for a city 12 miles from Manhattan that was struggling with a persistently high crime.
Booker's first run for mayor was documented in the Oscar-nominated film "Street Fight," and he is known for rubbing shoulders with celebrities.
Lonegan, who unsuccessfully challenged Christie in the 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary, has dubbed Booker a "Hollywood wannabe" more concerned with his own celebrity than with governing.
(Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Ken Wills)