It's the campaign for which political junkies have waited a lifetime. Featuring a stark choice between generations, the buzzword of "change" and a debate over Iraq, its cast includes a woman who met her husband in law school and now wants to follow in his political footsteps. (Or is she, critics ask, simply running to ease his return to power?) The race could be decided by a shadowy group of arm-twisting, Democratic Party "bosses" in "smoke-filled backrooms." It will drag on until June 3.
Critics have accused the Andrewses of trying to create a process for the nine-term congressman to slip back into his House seat if his Senate gambit doesn't pan out.
I'm writing, of course, about the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey, where Rep. Robert Andrews has launched a brazen bid to derail Sen. Frank Lautenberg's hopes for a fifth term. (Surely you didn't think I'd still devote valuable column space to that stale race for the White House. Until Democrats produce a nominee or do something more noteworthy than bowling, I'll focus instead on the dozens of other fascinating races taking shape this year).
Not that there aren't similarities. Indeed, national Democrats are watching Jersey closely to gauge how voters respond to age as a campaign issue. In an interview Wednesday, Andrews, 50, emphasized that he won't emphasize the senior status of Lautenberg, 84. But, of course, he doesn't have to; the press will do it for him. (See? I'm doing it right now.) Like Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, he did repeatedly use the word "change" as a way to denote, well, whatever voters want it to denote.
"I've never seen a time in our country where the hunger for change has been greater," Andrews said. "In New Jersey, it's a novel thing, but we're actually going to have an election."
While he exudes confidence, Andrews did raise eyebrows Monday when his wife, Camille, filed at the last minute to run for his old House seat in southern Jersey. Critics accused the power couple of trying to manipulate the election and create a process for the nine-term congressman to slip back into his safe Democratic House seat if the Senate gambit doesn't pan out. (It is, to be sure, an uphill climb; a recent poll conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed Lautenberg with a 76 percent approval rating; he led Andrews, 52 percent to 21 percent.)
In an interview this week with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Camille Andrews said she would abide by the decision of local Democratic bosses, who will choose a nominee from among more than two dozen applicants. (Who are these bosses? Think "superdelegates" meets "Sopranos.")
"I am absolutely ready, willing, and would be very honored to serve," she said. "But I also understand there are a number of candidates who are very interested."
Including, perhaps, her husband? He insists that's not in the cards. "Win or lose," he said, "I'm not coming back to the House." But in the world of Jersey politics, few people are ruling out a possible change of heart, prompted by, say, another "outpouring of pleas from supporters."
The circumstances surrounding the last campaign for this Senate seat overshadow the current race. Lautenberg, who was happily settling into his post-2000 retirement, was dragged back into politics to rescue the seat of disgraced Sen. Robert Torricelli. Lautenberg agreed to do so, but not without expressing some reluctance and giving many Democrats the clear impression that he'd serve only one more term. With that in mind, ambitious Jersey Democrats like Andrews started preparing then for an open seat in 2008.
But Lautenberg's two-year absence came at a particularly crucial time in the Senate -- the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the buildup to the war in Iraq. He wasn't in the Senate to cast a vote on the 2002 war resolution, but he has been a strong war critic since its inception. While Andrews now opposes the war as well, he was a chief supporter of the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war, and Lautenberg's camp has gleefully been circulating a photograph of Andrews standing next to Bush and John McCain at a signing ceremony for the resolution. (In his defense, at least Andrews wasn't smiling happily at the somber event, as Bush and McCain appear to be.)
Has anyone ever pulled off what Andrews is attempting -- running from the House to unseat a senator in a primary? The answer unearths another name you've heard frequently this year: Al Gore, whose father, then-Rep. Al Gore Sr., D-Tenn., was the last congressman to do so, knocking out Sen. Kenneth McKellar in a 1952 bloodbath. A couple more weeks of bowling, and we might have to go back and look at that fascinating race.