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The Real Candidates of New Jersey, but few seem to be paying attention

The New Jersey Democratic primary for Senate is in less than two weeks, but not even Garden State voters are taking notice.

That’s part of the reason why Newark Mayor Cory Booker has been able to sail relatively unscathed in the party contest to succeed the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Combine Booker’s universal name ID, celebrity status beyond the state, a crowded primary, and a campaign sprint that was just over two months long, and it’s been a recipe for Booker to remain the frontrunner. He’s consistently led his opponents by more than 40 points in most polls, and though expected low turnout adds an element of uncertainty, most see nothing other than victory for the rising Democratic star on Aug. 13.

“The Real Housewives of New Jersey is getting far more attention than either the race for the U.S. Senate or our gubernatorial campaign,” said Ben Dworkin, head of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, with two of the reality TV stars facing fraud charges

But it’s not for a lack of trying from Booker’s rivals, many of whom have been waiting in the wings for years for an open Senate seat. Though they’re still longshots, for Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, the special contest is a free shot at a Senate race without having to risk their safe House seats. And  Sheila Oliver, the African-American Assembly speaker, got a late start after the legislature wrapped up work, but has said she’s running, in part, because New Jersey has no female representation in Washington.

To their chagrin, Booker has been almost the Teflon candidate. In such a short campaign, observers agree it’s been safer for his opponents to find some way to build themselves up without knocking Booker down. The few jabs against Booker have centered mostly on the well-known mayor’s fame, painting him as overlooking Newark and its problems while fanning his own national profile.

Booker’s ads tout his turnaround of a troubled city, but there’s ample evidence to question just how successful he’s been. In a December story, the New York Times highlighted the “promise vs. reality” of Booker’s tenure as mayor. While he may have run into burning buildings and responded to constituent concerns directly on Twitter, many have noted how much time he spends out of the city with crime and unemployment rising.

Booker spokesman Kevin Griffis dismissed the negative stories, saying that “most people understand that a city that has been poorly managed for 40 years and has some really difficult challenges wouldn’t be turned around completely in seven.”

Griffis says Booker’s popularity has been nothing but a boon for Newark, and has allowed him to attract national help for his city, such as the $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg to the city’s schools. On Thursday, Oprah Winfrey will hold a fundraiser for Booker, who she called a “genius” in writing his profile as part of TIME’s 100 most influential people.

“Voters see this as a significant net-positive,” Griffis said of the attention Booker has brought to both himself and Newark. “It’s not just that the mayor has a microphone- it's what the mayor has done with it.”

Each of his three August opponents has been trying ways to attract attention apart from Booker, but they’ve still only touched Booker with kid gloves in the relatively calm contest, rare in a state that’s no stranger to bare-knuckled politicking. Booker drew criticism from his rivals for skipping the contest's televised debate, but even that’s unlikely to dent the frontrunner. One tack he’s frequently used is “Run With Cory” events with supporters.

“No one has come straight out and said Cory Booker has done a bad job,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “And if you don’t say that, people are going to believe Cory Booker has become famous by doing a good job in Newark.”

Already looking to the 2014 open seat, Booker already had a campaign in place before Lautenberg’s death, leaving his rivals to scramble to find ways not just to not just build their own profile statewide -- hard in a state sandwiched between the expensive New York City and Philadelphia media markets -- but without the time to make a chink in Booker’s armor.

“To chip away at someone who’s popular, and the popularity is wide, but it’s not necessarily deep,” Murray said. “It would take a while to say, ‘Hey, here’s the real Cory Booker’ and hope it sticks.”

Pallone, the only other candidate up with TV ads, has touted his endorsement from Lautenberg’s family, who Booker had rocked the wrong way by announcing his campaign before the incumbent said he would retire. In their announcement, the thinly veiled allusion of Pallone as a “workhorse over a showhorse” wasn’t lost on anyone. He’s touted work on health care, and on Tuesday he campaigned with former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who said he believes the party’s liberal wing could help pull a surprise in mid-August.

“Congressman Pallone has a record of real accomplishments,” Pallone spokesman Ray Zaccaro said. “He is focusing his campaign on making direct contact with real New Jerseyans about his record of achievements, not holding celebrity fetes and ‘fun runs.’”  

Holt, an actual rocket scientist and former professor, has zeroed in on his geeky nature to try and set himself apart. His web ads tout that he once defeated Jeopardy! super-computer Watson, and he’s made privacy concerns a main point of his underdog campaign. He’s introduced legislation to repeal the PATRIOT Act, and held a town hall Tuesday evening with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, the writer former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to about secret NSA surveillance programs. Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, also participated in the town hall and has endorsed Holt.

Low turnout amid the final days of summer vacation may give his rivals slim hope, but time still appears to be on Booker’s side.

“None of us were expecting to be running this race at this point in time,” Holt spokesman Thomas Seay said. “It’s been a sprint of a campaign.”

If Booker wins, he’ll face a general election Wedneday, Oct. 16, against likely GOP nominee Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, N.J.