By Gabriel H. Gluck
The gloves came off last night in the 7th Congressional District race as state Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) and Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union) squared off on issues ranging from taxes to the war in Iraq.
Stender also repeatedly accused Lance of misrepresenting his record in the Legislature on women's rights and finance issues while Lance charged Stender, albeit indirectly, with being "a double dipper and pension padder."
Last night's debate, the second between Lance and Stender, was broadcast live from the News 12 New Jersey studios in Edison. It will be rebroadcast Saturday at noon on Cablevision's channel 12 and Comcast's channel 62.
The race in the 7th District -- Union, Middlesex, Somerset and Hunterdon -- has become increasingly shrill in recent weeks.
News 12 Trenton Bureau Chief Walt Kane, who moderated the hour-long exchange, highlighted some of the nastier attack ads now making their way into the campaign battle.
Several polls indicate the race is too close to call, with decided voters nearly evenly split and large numbers of voters still undecided.
While Lance is doing very well in the western portion of the district, largely in his home county of Hunterdon, Stender is drawing on her recognition in the eastern section, in Union County and a small portion of Middlesex County. In the heart of the district is Somerset County, now emerging as the swing battleground that could turn the election.
During the debate, Stender repeatedly returned to the theme of closing the book on the eight years of the Bush administration and taking the country in a new direction. Lance stressed the need for fiscal reform and for compromise and bipartisan solutions.
"Our economy is in shambles. Wall Street is in chaos," Stender said. "The Bush administration turned record surpluses into record deficits. Our standing in the world has diminished."
"America cries out for bipartisan cooperation," Lance said in his opening statement. "I run as New Jersey's leading opponent of borrowing without voter approval."
Both basically agreed on the congressional action that gave the Bush administration authorization for a $700 billion economic rescue plan. But Lance criticized the partisanship that initially stalled addressing the problems while Stender criticized the administrative policies of the last eight years, saying there was too little oversight or enforcement in the financial community.
When it came to taxes, Lance cited New Jersey's soaring property taxes and repeatedly criticized Stender, saying, "My opponent has raised taxes at least 67 times."
Stender countered, citing Lance's support of tax hikes during Republican administrations, his vote against a minimum wage bill, and support for a 40 percent salary hike for himself and the rest of the state Legislature.
The two also dueled on the issue of women's access to birth control. Stender accused Lance of opposing legislation that guaranteed women access to birth control prescriptions. Lance objected, saying he has always been pro-choice.
When it came to Iraq, Lance stressed his support of the surge and its success in reducing violence, while Stender focused on the need to bring the troops home and reallocate the billions being spent on the war.
At the end of the exchange, Lance returned to his willingness to reach across the aisle.