Newark Mayor Cory Booker seemed poised for victory Tuesday as New Jersey voters head to the polls to select party nominees in the race to fill the state's empty U.S. Senate seat.
Booker, a Democrat, holds a strong lead in public opinion polls, with a 37-point edge over his nearest challenger among likely Democratic voters in one recent survey.
But with the primary being held amid the summer vacation season, voter turnout will have a significant impact on the actual results, said David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.
"In this election, it's dramatically difficult to figure out who a likely voter is. Half the state's down the shore," Redlawsk said.
The concern, and controversy, over the timing of the election emerged promptly after the Senate seat came open with the death in June of Sen. Frank Lautenberg at age 89. The liberal Democrat had been elected to the Senate five times.
To fill the seat, Republican Gov. Chris Christie called the Aug. 13 primary and set the special election for Oct. 16, three weeks ahead of the Nov. 5 general election when he is seeking re-election.
Democrats charged that the two fall elections should have been scheduled for the same day but that Christie was avoiding being on the same ballot as Booker, who could attract both strong Democratic and minority turnout.
Also seeking the Democratic party's nomination on Tuesday are Rep. Frank Pallone, who has polled in second place, Rep. Rush Holt, and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
But they have found little traction against the well-funded and well-known Booker, considered a rising political star.
The Newark mayor has enjoyed the support of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, and he has made himself a presence on social media with a prolific Twitter account and penchant for responding to constituent requests.
He once rushed into a burning building to help save a woman from the smoke and flames in her apartment.
"Famously willing to run after a mugger or into a burning building, and to move into the projects and play late-night basketball with kids there, the Rhodes scholar and Stanford- and Yale-educated lawyer grabbed headlines but also restored a sense of hope to the neglected city," The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in its endorsement of Booker.
He is credited with bringing in $1 billion in new development into Newark, including the city's first new downtown hotel in 40 years and the relocation of major companies, including Panasonic, which is building a new North American headquarters downtown.
The New York Times, in its endorsement of Booker, noted that under his tenure, Newark schools got a $100 million gift from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Booker has "made a national name for himself by bringing new thinking, honesty and compassion to the hidebound, corrupt and cold city government in Newark," the Times wrote.
Opponents have criticized his ambitious nature and asked whether he is more concerned with himself than with his constituents. An article in The New York Times last week raised questions about the circumstances of Booker's stake in an Internet start-up company and his close involvement with Silicon Valley executives.
On the Republican side, Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, N.J., is vying with Alieta Eck, a physician, for the party's spot in the Oct. 16 special general election.
Lonegan, a tea party conservative, led Eck 74 percent to 10 percent among likely Republican voters in a Quinnipiac University poll taken earlier this month.
That poll showed Booker leading 54 percent to 29 percent over Lonegan in a general election matchup.
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