Video: Battle for the Senate: New Jersey

By Chip Reid Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/17/2006 8:43:53 PM ET 2006-10-18T00:43:53

It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. Democrat Bob Menendez was appointed to an open U.S. Senate seat in January.

The thinking then was that his long experience in New Jersey politics, plus a fat campaign bank account, would carry him to victory in November in this heavily Democratic state.

But Tom Kean, Jr., who rarely mentions he's a Republican, has used his family name — his father is the popular former governor of New Jersey — and a relentless attack on Menendez's ethics to turn this race into a toss-up.

"Listen carefully to Bob Menendez's top lieutenant pressuring a doctor in a Menendez kick-back scheme," says one one Kean campaign commercial, followed by audio from the alleged lieutenant: "The only reason I stuck my nose in this Ruiz thing is because Menendez asked me to do it."

"Clearly Bob Menendez's financial records are under investigation by the U.S. attorney," says Kean. "That's clear!"

Mincing no words, Menendez calls Kean a liar, insisting there's no evidence he's under investigation, though it's not entirely clear who's right.

"You know, it's the politics of smear, the politics of personal destruction," Menendez says.

And while Menendez's early ads were on issues, now he's firing back.

"Kean, Jr. conspired with a corrupt politician to smear Bob Menendez," says a recent campaign commercial.

The candidates do talk about issues.

At an Italian-American picnic Sunday, Menendez hit on one of the biggest.

"We need to change the direction in Iraq," he told the crowd.

He wants the troops home within a year.

Kean, at a recent house party for moms and babies, said he opposes a timetable on Iraq, but distanced himself from President Bush.

"We need a new secretary of defense," said Kean.

Political analysts, though, say the debate on issues has mostly been drowned out by the deafening drumbeat of negative ads.

This race has become one of the most closely watched in the nation, not just because it's so tight, and not just because it's so nasty, but also because of the role it could play in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. Now, some Democrats are worried their long-shot plan to take control could be foiled by one of their own.

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