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Star-Ledger - "Mideast policy dominates Lance-Stender debate"

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Star-Ledger - "Mideast policy dominates Lance-Stender debate"

State Sen. Leonard Lance and Assemblywoman Linda Stender debated a range of domestic and international issues tonight as they battled to represent the 7th Congressional District, with American foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East emerging as a major concern for their standing-room-only audience.

Hosted by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Lance, a Hunterdon County Republican, and Stender, a Union County Democrat, affirmed their support for the Jewish state and expressed concern for the emerging threat from Iran and its growing nuclear capabilities.

The pair, speaking at the Jewish Community Campus of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, also supported a "two-state" solution to provide a Palestinian homeland and agreed on the need for more attention to the situation in Darfur.

While Stender used the issue of Iran to reiterate her opposition to the Iraq war, which she said ultimately strengthened Iran's position in the region, Lance placed more of his focus on the level of negotiations that should take place between the United States and Iran.

In their opening remarks, Lance stressed his independence and willingness to take on members of his own party, while Stender stressed her environmental legislation and the need for the change.

"We have a choice between more of the same or a new direction," Stender said, questioning Lance's independence and President Bush's upcoming visit on Lance's behalf.

The country's international reputation is in shreds, with $10 billion a month being spent on a war that has left the world less safe, she said.

Lance stressed the need for energy independence, with less reliance on foreign oil and the need to rein in the soaring national debt.

"I am opposed to raising taxes and bonding after bonding," Lance said. "Assemblywoman Stender has voted for increased taxes and increased taxes, and I think this is a fundamental difference between the two of us."

The two also have differed on the surge, the increased troop commitment in Iraq, which Lance supported while Stender has continued to call for American troops to return home.

"We need to get our troops out," Stender said. "For too long we've had cowboy diplomacy from the Bush administration."

However, Lance countered, "We can now leave Iraq because of the surge."

Lance is a household name in Hunterdon County -- he is the third generation of his family to hold a seat in the Legislature -- but it was clear from the Stender supporters standing outside the JCC, holding huge bedsheets announcing "Welcome to Stender Country," that the Union County assemblywoman and former Fanwood mayor would enjoy a hometown advantage last night. That advantage could heard by the resounding applause and cheers that greeted her closing remarks.

Although the two differed many times, it was more by degree than opposing positions. They are both pro-choice, support stem-cell research, oppose oil drilling off the New Jersey coast, want wider access to health care and believe in the need to address global warming. But if the devil is in the details, there was not much time in the 30-minute debate to find him.

Although Democrats have waged some serious campaigns to wrest the 7th District seat from the Republicans, they are especially determined to take it this year. With four-term GOP Rep. Mike Ferguson stepping down after nearly losing to Stender two years ago, the Democrats have committed substantial state and national party funds to the effort.

Westfield Rabbi Douglas Segal served as moderator last night. Segal, an amateur boxer, confessed to being a little nervous about his new role. But the audience of several hundred residents heeded his admonition to avoid any heckling or partisan responses and the evening went off without a problem.

Lance was first elected to the Assembly in 1991 and served there until he moved up to the Senate 10 years later, where he has continued to serve. He holds an undergraduate degree from Lehigh University and a law degree from Vanderbilt University.

Stender, a former Fanwood mayor and Union County freeholder, is now in her fourth term in the Assembly. She graduated from American University.

In his closing remarks, Lance deplored the polarization in Washington and said he would work together with Democrats.

"We must make sure we have moderates in the Congress of the United States," he said.

Stender challenged that argument.

"The party of my opponent is the party that has put us in this mess, and the moderates have been part of it," she said. "The American dream is at stake in this election. The choice is more of the same or rebuilding."

The 7th District bobs and weaves from the Elizabeth River in the east to the Delaware River on the west, and includes communities in Union, Middlesex, Somerset and Hunterdon counties.

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