By Barbara Goldberg
MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey (Reuters) - Voters headed to the polls on Wednesday in New Jersey, where Cory Booker, the charismatic Democratic mayor of Newark, was heavily favored to beat conservative Republican Steve Lonegan in a special election to fill the state's vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Polling this week gave Booker leads ranging from 14 points to 22 points over Lonegan, a former small-town mayor with limited name recognition but a flair for attention-grabbing events.
The winner will fill the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died in June at age 89.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking re-election and a possible White House contender in 2016, chose October 16 as the special election date.
Democrats accused Christie of self-interest and wasteful spending and said the governor could have scheduled the special election for November 5, the day of the general election.
They said he was avoiding being on the same ballot as Booker, who could attract Democratic and minority turnout and cut into Christie's chances of winning re-election by a large margin.
Christie, who said politics did not play a role in the decision, said he wanted to let New Jersey voters have a permanent voice in the Senate as soon as possible.
Some voters said the election's odd timing - as well as polls showing Booker's earlier, even-larger lead shrinking - persuaded them to get to the voting booth.
"Being a special election, I was worried it won't be on people's radar and that's how the extreme right gets in," said Sharon Stewart, 50, a sales associate voting in Maplewood with her husband, Ford Stewart, 52, a tech specialist, and their son Cam Stewart, 22.
"We're here today so we're not surprised tomorrow morning," she said.
At two polling places in Maplewood, a leafy suburb bordering Newark, poll watchers reported a thin but steady stream of voters.
One election volunteer at a local church estimated that by midafternoon about 300 people had voted, a turnout far below that in a presidential election.
The race will come down to turnout, said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton poll, which on Monday gave Booker a 58-36 lead over Lonegan.
"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.
A Quinnipiac poll on Tuesday found Booker ahead, 54 percent to 40 percent.
In recent weeks, Lonegan, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group funded by the conservative Koch brothers, 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.
Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate first elected mayor of Newark in 2006, rocketed to fame as a booster for the state's largest city, 12 miles from Manhattan, which has struggled with poverty and persistently high crime.
His 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 said he opposed federal aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy and more recently voiced support for the Republican House members who forced the government shutdown.
He has dubbed Booker a "Hollywood wannabe" more concerned with his own celebrity than with governing.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Ken Wills and Douglas Royalty)