NEWARK, N.J. (CBS/AP) — The gloves came off during the New Jersey Senate debate on Wednesday. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez cast Republican rival Bob Hugin as President Donald Trump’s closest Senate ally-in the-making, but the former drug company executive said he’s “no Trump Republican” and bashed him over tossed-out corruption charges in the closely watched contest’s first and only debate.
The two-term incumbent and former Celgene executive clashed in a live NJTV debate televised statewide.
In what has become a staple dynamic in the race and the reason experts say it’s much closer than expected, Hugin jabbed Menendez over the 2015 federal corruption indictment on charges that the senator accepted lavish vacations from a Florida eye doctor who is a friend in return for help with a Medicare billing dispute.
The case ended in a mistrial, and the government dropped the charges this year.
Menendez denies wrongdoing and on Wednesday said he apologizes to voters. He asked them to look at his record of supporting women’s health, Medicare and Medicaid funding and the environment.
But Hugin, who has tapped his own bank account for $24 million to run ads against Menendez, sharply attacked his opponent at the start.
“We deserve better. Bob Menendez has failed and embarrassed us,” Hugin said.
Trump looms as an issue in the race particularly because surveys show he’s mostly unpopular in New Jersey, where Democrats have more than 900,000 additional voters than Republicans, and as he frequently dominates the news.
Menendez sought to tether Trump to Hugin, who raised campaign cash for him and chaired the then-candidate’s finance committee in the state in 2016.
“What we just saw was an hour of my opponent running away from Donald Trump,” Menendez said just after the debate ended.
Repeating a line he used in the debate, he referenced Hugin’s age, 64 — the same has Menendez’s.
“You cannot change in 60 minutes what you have been for 60 years,” he said.
Asked directly whether he considered himself a “Trump Republican,” Hugin responded in the negative.
“No, I’m not a Trump Republican. I’m an independent Republican. I’ve been independent all my life,” Hugin said.
One of the sharper exchanges came when Hugin was asked if he stood by a recent TV ad that raised old unsubstantiated claims that Menendez patronized underage prostitutes as part of his friendship with the co-defendant in the 2017 trial. Hugin said he “absolutely” stood by it, saying it’s “a job interview. This is not a trial.”
Responding, Menendez cut off Hugin who tried to interject.
“Every fact checker has disputed (it). It’s a lie, Bob. I didn’t interrupt you. Don’t interrupt me.”
Reflecting another principal attack in the campaign so far, Menendez criticized Hugin over his time as Celgene’s top executive, saying the company raised a cancer drug’s prices three times on his watch. “Who does that?” Menendez asked.
Hugin defended himself saying that “cancer is not cheap,” and patients are alive today because of the drug.
On the 2017 tax overhaul, Menendez said he opposed it, while Hugin said he would not have supported it with the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, a huge issue in high-tax New Jersey.
Keeping the seat is key for Democrats, who along with two independents allied with them are defending 26 seats Nov. 6.
That includes 10 Democratic incumbents running in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016.
Republicans are defending just nine seats, mostly in friendly territory.
Surveys have shown the New Jersey race closer than experts expected in a contest deep within Democratic territory.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)