COLLINGSWOOD, N.J. (AP) — Cory Booker has been on an after-dark jog with supporters in Morristown, held a fundraiser featuring Oprah Winfrey, posed for pictures at a Collingswood restaurant, given a speech in Lawrenceville and tweeted about all of it.
But the ubiquitous Newark mayor has been drawing criticism from his opponents in a special U.S. Senate election for where he hasn’t been so far: campaign forums with them.
At least twice, the other three Democrats running in the Aug. 13 primary have debated without him — including last week when he chose Winfrey over one sponsored by the NAACP.
He is scheduled to appear at debates Monday and Thursday.
Booker is the front-runner in both the Democratic primary and the Oct. 16 special general election. He’s aided by a national platform, giving 90 speeches and collecting $1.3 million in fees for them, across the country since 2008. (He’s donated nearly half the proceeds to charity). And he’s helped by a head start in the race: Booker publicly announced his interest in running for the Senate in December and started raising money for his run the next month.
But then, he was looking at a run in 2014.
Everything changed in June, when Sen. Frank Lautenberg died and Gov. Chris Christie called a special election to fill the last 15 months of his term.
Booker’s preparations quickly turned into a full-blown campaign.
While he has laid out specific policy plans, including a broad approach to curtailing childhood poverty, many of his events — and there are many of them — are meet-and-greets without a specific policy message, stump speech or availability for journalists who show up.
On July 29, Booker did a tour of Collingswood’s hip Haddon Avenue, making a scheduled stop at a diner and an impromptu one at a new art gallery, Galarie Marie. He learned about it during a conversation with its owner, painter and former museum administrator Kimberly Camp.
She didn’t even know Booker was due in town, but when she heard, she asked campaign staffers — Booker’s entourage is bigger than most for a Senate campaign — if she could host a fundraiser.
In her gallery, Booker was drawn to a painting she’d done of a relative in an Army uniform. “That’s stunning,” he declared before talking with her about the history of black service members.
And in The Pop Shop, a colorful modern-day soda fountain and diner, Booker posed for photo after photo with admirers — some fans tipped off that he’d be there, others just happened to be having a meal.
In a tech-savvy campaign from a Twitter star of a candidate, the photos were a small part of the strategy: The campaign suggests people post them on social-networking sites, where they can make a small campaign stop seem like a bigger one.
Overall, the race so far has been a civil one but almost all the barbs among the candidates have been aimed at Booker.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver declared that she doesn’t have a sense of “entitlement” to contrast herself with Booker; U.S. Rep. Rush Holt has complained that the media is paying too much attention to Booker; U.S. Rep. Frank Lautenberg has denounced Booker for missing forums.
The Republicans running have also taken digs. Alieta Eck describes Booker as mayor of “the Detroit of New Jersey,” a reference to a city that struggles with poverty and crime. And Steve Lonegan has put out news releases and held news conferences — including one last week outside Booker’s campaign headquarters to criticize Booker’s stances.
But when it comes to the Democrats, Booker has treaded carefully.
In a June campaign stop in Deptford, Booker promised not to run negative ads in the primary.
“The three opponents I have are all good Democrats,” he said. “They’re really good leaders.”
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