Booker’s big lead in New Jersey Senate race paints target on his back

But Booker’s Democratic opponents — Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone — insist they have a path to victory over the early front-runner.

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That path will include both members of Congress vigorously shaking hands in their home districts to ensure their base supporters turn out for the Aug. 13 primary. 

It will have them on-air to increase their name recognition and combat Booker’s national prominence.

And it will likely include a sustained effort to question Booker’s short government career and his political celebrity, which is both his strongest asset and biggest potential liability. 

Holt has already begun that fight, launching an online video Wednesday that poked fun at Booker’s star status.

“I’ll be the first to admit: I’m no Cory Booker,” Holt says in the video. “I don’t have a million Twitter followers, I’ve never run into a burning building, and I’m not friends with Mark Zuckerberg, though I did like him on Facebook.”

Booker has dominated media coverage of the race in the past week by scooping up several former Obama campaign officials.

Booker has brought in 2008 Obama staffer Addisu Demissie to be his campaign manager and Obama veterans Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart to work on his grassroots outreach. Other hires include the Benenson Strategy Group, which ran Obama’s polling operation. 

Booker also touted endorsements this week from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), influential New Jersey party bosses and state legislators, including both the state Assembly majority leader and state Senate president.

A Rasmussen poll released Wednesday showed Booker with 54 percent support among Democrats, compared to 11 percent for Holt and 8 percent for Pallone. 

That hefty lead has stirred some anxiety among Booker’s team. 

“The high expectations are a concern, and facing opponents who are well-resourced and likely to spend a lot of their time attacking us, we expect the polls to tighten,” one Booker campaign aide told The Hill.

The concern is that, if polls begin to tighten, Booker will face extra scrutiny and press coverage about whether he’s lost the pizzazz that’s made him a national name.

Booker has already been subject to a smattering of negative reports about his service in Newark, with critics questioning whether he spent too much time rubbing elbows with wealthy celebrities and not enough time working in the city.

Holt didn’t directly criticize Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, framing himself instead as the most progressive candidate in the race.

An aide to Holt said Booker’s more centrist positions on issues like school choice — he backs vouchers — and his 2012 defense of Mitt Romney’s private equity career may not play well in a Democratic primary, when more progressive voters typically head to the polls.

Booker will have to defend those positions in yet-to-be-scheduled primary debates, forums in which Booker faces more risk than reward.

“That’s a position where Pallone or Holt could go up and Booker could go down,” former state Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski told The Hill.

“I don’t think Cory is at the same level of comprehension of all of the federal issues that someone who currently holds federal office would have, just by the nature of where they stand.”

Pallone, aware of the opportunity to knock Booker in debates, was the first candidate to call for “multiple” forums.

But in a low-turnout August election — when many voters will be on vacation at the Jersey Shore — name identification can be a candidate’s greatest asset.

Holt, a physicist who has served in the House since 1999, hopes to close the poll gap by playing up his own compelling personal story, an aide suggested. 

The former rocket scientist won “Jeopardy!” five times and defeated the supercomputer Watson during a game.

Holt played on his own minor celebrity in his campaign video, pledging to “beat Cory Booker like I beat Watson: One answer at a time.”

Pallone, for his part, may have an early advantage on advertising. 

He entered the race with the most money in his war chest — more than $3.4 million — and will be able to spend it on ads in the expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets.

But it costs around $1 million to go on-air for a week, and building name recognition alone won’t likely be enough to topple Booker, said Monmouth University Pollster Patrick Murray. 

Pallone and Holt will have to hope for one of New Jersey’s big public workers unions to engage in the race, Murray said.

“They’ll need to convince these unions to support them and use all their resources to help inform their members and engage in heavy get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day and throughout the campaign,” he said.

Turnout in the primary is expected to be in the low hundreds of thousands, and both Pallone and Holt will look for strong support from voters in their home districts. 

Wisniewski said that the race could come down to whether the “soft support” of Booker fans trumps the enthusiastic network Pallone and Holt have built among their constituents over years of service.

“Does the star status of Cory Booker trump the years in the vineyard for Frank Pallone and Rush Holt within their congressional districts?” he said.

The Holt aide noted another potential advantage for the congressman: Redistricting has expanded his established base of supporters.

“The fact that he’s been in Congress for some time and his district has shifted is significant,” the aide said. “More so than some of the other candidates, he has infrastructure throughout central New Jersey to [bring] out voters.”