Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, had little trouble keeping to their campaign scripts in the first of three scheduled debates held Thursday night in Montclair.
Although the hour-long event included wide-ranging questions from moderator Mick Schneider of NJTV, four panelists and one who submitted taped questions, they seldom ruffled either candidate.
Well into the debate,Kyrillos momentarily put Menendez on the defensive when discussing unsuccessful efforts to keep Fort Monmouth's operations from being shifted to Maryland. "I'm not sure where you were in that fight, Bob," Kyrillos said, one of a number of times he addressed his opponent directly as they stood at side-by-side podiums.
But Kyrillos made no direct response when Menendez repeatedly said he had of "walked out on women" by failing to vote on equal-pay measures and voting against women's health-care funding bills.
Afterward, only Menendez stayed around to claim victory to the media. The debate presented "a clear contrast," he said, and viewers could see "my views are more in the mainstream."
Kyrillos had to leave for another commitment, according to his campaign manager, Chapin Fay. But he disputed Menendez's comments, saying, "You have to take a position before you can claim an accomplishment."
As in Wednesday night's presidential debate, taxes and spending provided an undercurrent throughout the evening.
Menendez was prepared with specifics when asked about wasteful programs he had voted to eliminate to reduce the federal deficit, naming programs pushed more by partisan contributors than by the Pentagon: the F-22 fighter and a new fighter engine.
But Kyrillos said that, as on other issues, the incumbent spent too much time blaming the other party.
"It's always the other guy's fault," he said.
Repeatedly referring to Menendez as one of "these guys in Washington," Kyrillos said Congress needs more people with his experience of working with both sides in Trenton.
Following campaign strategy, Kyrillos laid the blame for the poor economy at Menendez's door.
"Bob keeps talking about fighting for the middle class... the middle class is getting buried," he said.
Because of gridlock in Congress, the nation faces the prospect of drastic program cuts and tax increases at the end of the year, a "fiscal cliff" self-created by both parties.
"Everybody's taxes are going to go up," Kyrillos warned.
But Menendez dismissed that prospect during and after the debate. Negotiations have been continuing in Washington, and "we're going to have a very robust lame duck session following the election on that very issue," he said. "I'm very optimistic that we will save the nation from such an economic body-blow."
When Kyrillos sought to blame Washington for New Jersey's even worse economy, Menendez responded that some blame should go to Gov. Chris Christie's job cuts, which his opponent has supported.
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