After the debate between the New Jersey U.S. Senate candidates last night, I walked away from Wilson Hall at Rowan University wondering if this is was what it was like to see Lincoln and Douglas, or Thaddeus Stevens calling his opponents scoundrels on the House floor.
It was one of the best debates I've ever seen.
Democrat Corey Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan brought the courage of sharply contrasting convictions, impressive verbal skills, and a willingness to throw haymakers at each other, start to finish.
Booker, the celebrated mayor of Newark and Lonegan, a deeply conservative former mayor of Bogota in North Jersey are battling for the senate seat vacated by the death of Democrat Frank Lautenberg in June. The rare Wednesday election is just a week away.
In his first answer to a question about the federal government shutdown, Booker noted that Lonegan had supported the efforts of House Republicans to defund Obamacare.
"The first election in this shutdown we can send a message directly to Washington," Booker said. "Do we want to send more Tea Party people down who are so obsessed with Obamacare that they want to shut down the entire government to stop the expansion of health care to more people in America?"
Lonegan came back hard, attacking Booker's politics and his star power.
"They want to jam Obamacare down our throats at any expense," Lonegan said. "And my opponent in this race, Mr. Booker is only the Hollywood stand-in for Barack Obama on this ballot. This election is a referendum on Obamacare, the NSA, the IRS abuse of power, the intrusion into our children's education. It's the destruction of our liberty. That's what's on the ballot."
Just in case you thought the stakes were small
So it went, as they traded shots on abortion, gun control, same sex marriage, government spending and other issues. One moment that drew gasps from the audience followed Booker's comment that environmental regulations are needed to protect resources like the Passaic River that runs through Newark.
"You know, you may not be able to swim in that river, but it's because of all the bodies floating around from shooting victims in your city," Lonegan said.
"Oh my God, oh my God," Booker said, as audience members reacted.
"Yeah, oh my God," Lonegan continued. "You use these words like 'Tea Party, extremist.' You know your coaches have done a really good job."
"This is what he thinks of our cities, that there are bodies floating in the city of Newark," Booker responded. "How insulting is that to the people of this city and others working together?"
Lonegan described Newark as a city of corruption and inefficiency that sucks up tax dollars from around the state, referring to it once as a "big black hole."
Lonegan said afterward he had no regrets about the floating bodies line, or about calling Newark a black hole, saying it's a phrase commonly used to describe places where money is wasted. Asked for his reaction, Booker said he thought the media should interpret what Lonegan meant by the expression.
There were certainly times when candidates were evasive, and some material cited will deserve fact-checking. But unlike so many debates, it was a riveting hour that left anybody watching with a clear choice.
Lonegan started the race far behind, but a new Quinnipiac poll finds him within 12 points of Booker, who holds a 53-41 percent lead.
After the debate Lonegan predicted he'll win because he has momentum, and said he clobbered Booker in the debate. Booker said it was good voters got to see their contrasting views.
The election is next Wednesday. It's an unusual day for voting, and just this race is on the ballot, so much will depend on who gets his voters to the polls.