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Iraq, Personal Integrity Top N.J. Issues

November 7, 2006

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ The war in Iraq and personal integrity seemed to be the main motivating factors as voters cast ballots Tuesday in the bitter U.S. Senate race between a former longtime Democratic congressman and the son of a popular former Republican governor.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who has lost only one election in more than 30 years in public office, faced state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. in a campaign filled with personal attacks and fueled by discontent over the war.

``They should have left Iraq alone from the beginning,″ said Robert Rodgers, a 71-year-old retiree who cast his ballot for Menendez at a Newark elementary school. ``They weren’t bothering nobody. Our boys are getting blown up morning, noon and night.″

But Terence Brice of Newark, an investigator with the state treasury department, voted for Kean out of concern about Menendez’s ethics.

He said the war is a concern, ``but I don’t believe the link Menendez is trying to make between Kean and Bush. It just seems like a stretch to me.″

With control of Congress in the balance, the national parties pumped millions of dollars into the Garden State to help their candidates air ads pounding their messages home: Kean claimed Menendez is corrupt; Menendez said Kean would be a mouthpiece for President Bush.

Democrats need six seats to control the Senate and both parties deployed a cadre of national figures to campaign with their candidates. The state’s House members also were up for election, although none of the incumbents was expected to lose.

Polls opened at 6 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m. Menendez, sounding confident about winning the race, voted in Hoboken at 6:25 a.m. Kean, accompanied by his wife and two young daughters, voted at 8:03 a.m. at the Westfield Public Library.

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The campaign’s themes were both simple and cutting.

Kean unceasingly criticized Menendez’s ethics, pinning many of his attacks on the senator’s rental of a home he owned to a nonprofit organization for which he then helped obtain federal funds. The organization’s records reportedly were subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney, leading Kean to label Menendez as ``under federal criminal investigation,″ something the incumbent vehemently denied.

The claims did appear to get some traction, however. Although one recent poll showed Menendez with a 10 percentage-point lead, most gave the incumbent only single-digit leads in a Democrat-leaning state that last sent a Republican to the Senate in 1972.

The national Republican Party took notice, airing $3.5 million in ads against Menendez and sending Arizona Sen. John McCain, former President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to help.

Menendez, who voted in 2002 against sending troops to Iraq, painted Kean as a future mouthpiece for the Bush administration. While the challenger echoed Menendez’s call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Kean did say he would have voted to send troops overseas.

The point was significant in New Jersey, where polls have shown President Bush’s approval sinking and increasing discontent over the war. The state has more unaffiliated voters than registered Democrats and Republicans combined.

National Democrats spent $4 million on Menendez’s behalf, adding to the money advantage he held throughout the race. As of mid-October, Menendez had $3.15 million to spend, compared to Kean’s $1.67 million. Among the notables who campaigned for Menendez were former President Bill Clinton and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Lineage also played a part.

The 38-year-old Kean appeared numerous times on the campaign trial with his father, former Gov. and 9-11 Commission chief Tom Kean. Their family boasts five colonial governors, two U.S. senators and a congressman. The elder Kean served two terms as governor and is still revered for his bipartisan style of governing.

Menendez, the 52-year-old son of immigrants who left Cuban before he was born, is the third Hispanic currently serving in the Senate, and only the sixth Hispanic to ever serve in the body.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine last year tapped Menendez to fill the final year of his own Senate term, making Menendez the first minority lawmaker to represent New Jersey in the Senate.

Trained as lawyer, Menendez grew up in a Union City and was the first in his family to go to college. His political career started at 19 when he was elected to the school board; he first was elected to Congress in 1992.

_Associated Press writer Wayne Parry in Newark contributed to this story.

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