Sen. Bob Menendez, the incumbent Democrat (left) and Republican challenger Joe Kyrillos, a veteran state legislator (right)
With just under a month to go in their campaign for U.S. Senate, New Jersey's two major-party candidates spent much of their second debate Wednesday trying to blame the other for the lackluster economy and struggles of the middle-class.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the incumbent Democrat, and Republican challenger Joe Kyrillos, a veteran state legislator, stuck mainly to their respective party's talking points on issues such as health care and illegal immigration, and were most animated when arguing over how best to jumpstart the economy.
"You've been in the Legislature for 24 years — other states see their unemployment lowering. What are you doing about creating jobs," Menendez asked.
"We have 450,000 New Jersey citizens out of work. The jobs you cite from your stimulus program were very, very expensive adding nearly $1 trillion to the debt of the country," Kyrillos replied.
The second of their three scheduled face-to-face matchups featured lively, free-flowing exchanges sparked primarily by questions called in from listeners of radio station 101.5 FM, the sponsor of the live, one-hour debate. The third debate will be broadcast Sunday.
The candidates spent several minutes describing how they would help the middle class, but both struggled to define who constitutes the middle class.
Menendez said it's families who work hard, have a home, want their children to go to college and not be one illness away from bankruptcy. Kyrillos said it's "nearly everyone."
Some of their most obvious differences came when the candidates were permitted to question one another. Menendez asked Kyrillos about Romney's "47 percent" comment about the number of Americans who earn too little to pay personal income taxes and why he voted along party lines to deny $8 million in state funding for women's health centers. Kyrillos asked Menendez if he'd vote differently on the economic strategy the Democrats have pursued and about whether his jobs creation plan could be accomplished without spending more money or raising taxes.
Menendez summed up the exchange by saying the two may have some similar goals, but have fundamentally different approaches to accomplishing them.
Kyrillos mentioned former Gov. Jon Corzine at least three times during the debate, trying to tie Menendez, whom Corzine appointed to the Senate, to the defeated Democrat.
"Let me bring back (former Republican Gov.) Christie Whitman and the bond issue that exploded state debt," Menendez replied.
Menendez, 58, is seeking a second six-year term. His opponent is a 52-year-old commercial real estate broker who chaired Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in New Jersey in 2008. New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since the '70s.
Menendez entered the campaign with other advantages over Kyrillos. Menendez is far better funded and has more name recognition among voters. He comes from heavily populated Hudson County, and has President Barack Obama anchoring the ticket.
Kyrillos is from Monmouth County and counts Gov. Chris Christie among his long-time friends. Both Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are expected to be campaigning with Kyrillos this month as he tries to gain traction in a race that's not getting a lot of attention.