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New Jersey congressional primary pits Obama against Clinton

June 05, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • President Barack Obama walks with Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) before departing the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama walks with Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) before… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

NEW YORK -- Former President Bill Clinton was a consummate team player Monday, crediting President Obama for making the tough calls in a turbulent political climate and calling the prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency "calamitous." President Obama was equally kind to his predecessor, praising his "inexhaustible energy and knowledge," and his legacy of leading Democrats"out of the wilderness" with a "thoughtful, common-sense, progressive agenda."

But days earlier, just across the Hudson River, was a fresh reminder of the political rivalry that once captivated the party -- with the two men appearing on opposite sides in one of the nation's most contentious congressional primary battles in the newly-redrawn 9th congressional district in New Jersey. Ahead of today's primary vote in the Garden State, Clinton appeared at a campaign rally Friday for Rep. Bill Pascrell, a supporter of Clinton's wife in 2008.

"Every day he has been in public life, Bill Pascrell has done what he thought was best for you," Clinton told supporters.

That same morning, fellow Democrat Steve Rothman scored a coveted photo opportunity at the White House with President Obama, whose campaign he supported four years ago. The White House denied it was a formal endorsement, but Rothman told a local newspaper that the president "wanted everybody to know that he supported my reelection."

The same Bergen Record story said the Pascrell-Rothman fight seemed very much a Clinton-Obama battle, with some validity.

With his wife barred from political activity as secretary of State, Clinton has spent the past four years repaying the Democrats who supported her candidacy for their loyalty. The 9th district race showed how Team Obama has been doing the same; David Axelrod came to the district to campaign with Rothman last month.

Pascrell, of course, is now a loyal Obama backer, as is former President Clinton. One of Pascrell's closing television ads calls him the "fighter we need to support President Obama."

But Rothman has cast himself as the "Democrats' Democrat," a more reliable progressive than Pascrell.

New Jersey lost one of its 13 congressional districts because of population shifts in the 2010 census. The new 9th district included Pascrell's home base of Paterson, while Rothman lived in the redrawn 5th district.

Democrats lobbied Rothman to fight in that new district and challenge another incumbent, Republican and staunch conservative Scott Garrett. It would have been a marquee general election fight, and one Democrats think Rothman could have won in a year when Obama will lead the ticket in the state.

But Rothman opted to instead challenge Pascrell, arguing that the new 9th district included many towns he has represented for years, including the one he once led as mayor.

The fight became an on-the-air battle, with the two candidates forced to spend heavily in the expensive New York media market to get their message out. Pascrell appeared to be allocating more of his funds on local cable television, more directly targeted voters in the district, according to a Democrat closely monitoring the race.

Rothman said last week that he was confident his lead in public and internal polling would hold, though observers sensed that Pascrell had late momentum. The eventual winner is likely to go on to serve a ninth term next year.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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