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All Eyes on Lautenberg, Booker in N.J. Speculation Game

Even Atlantic City bookmakers might be stumped setting the odds for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s political future in 2014.

While the senator, who will be 89 in January, has indicated he will seek another term, there is no other possible Senate retirement that sparks more speculation and uncomfortable feelings.

Even if the New Jersey Democrat runs, the odds he will face a primary from a restive group of ambitious Democrats in the state seem good. The top two names floated by New Jersey Democrats are Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.

“People will think about the race, even if Sen. Lautenberg is a candidate,” one New Jersey Democratic strategist said. “They may not go to the starting line, but there will be jostling.”

The thought of Lautenberg winning another term makes Democrats from Trenton to Capitol Hill uneasy, to say the least. If Republican Gov. Chris Christie is re-elected in 2013 and if Lautenberg is re-elected as a 90-year-old in 2014 and dies in office, Christie would appoint a successor, presumably a Republican.

But that doesn’t seem to be a concern for Lautenberg, who said last week that he’s focused solely on the recovery efforts from superstorm Sandy and the lame-duck session. “Right now, I’m thinking about Sandy. … Right now I’m thinking about the fiscal situation,” Lautenberg said after declining to comment on his re-election outlook.

So state operatives are left to speculate. For every strategist who is convinced he will retire, there is another who says he will hold on.

“There’s not that much leverage to kind of force the issue,” a New Jersey Democrat with ties to the delegation said. “He gave up his seat once willingly; he didn’t like that. I don’t think he’ll do that again. It won’t be easy for him to do that again, that’s for sure.”

The operative was referring to Lautenberg’s 2002 Senate run. He came out of retirement and essentially saved the seat after Democratic Sen. Robert G. Torricelli was forced out of his re-election race.

Meanwhile, Booker’s national profile increases with each passing week, as does the speculation about his future. The tone of these discussions are as if the Senate race is an open-seat contest.

Bergen County Democratic Party Chairman Lou Stellato insists that the party’s energy needs to be directed toward defeating Christie, who currently has sky-high approval ratings, in the 2013 gubernatorial race.

“There are other battles to fight before we get to that war,” Stellato said about the Senate speculation. “We have to keep focus.”

Senate races are already materializing in other parts of the country, and the idea that 2014 planning can be put on hold for a year is unfeasible to some.

In an interview last week with Roll Call at the Capitol, Lautenberg seemed healthy and sharp.

The plugged-in New Jersey Democratic strategist said the senator is in strong physical and mental shape, “which is why people should not assume he’s not running.” But many still discuss the Democratic nightmare scenario with potential national implications.

Senate Democrats are playing heavily on defense in 2014. A split 50-50 Senate is not outside the realm of possibility after the midterms, and a Republican appointment could throw power to the GOP.

The rub, according to New Jersey sources, is that Senate Democratic leaders have limited leverage over Lautenberg because his seniority was not reinstated after he returned to the Senate in 2003.

Aides on Capitol Hill are reluctant to discuss the matter, saying too many hypotheticals would need to occur before leadership would be put in a bind.

Despite that reluctance, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York endorsed Lautenberg for re-election more than a year ago. Schumer is the Senate Democratic Conference vice chairman.

“We absolutely want him to run again; we hope he continues to run for one more term,” he said in November 2011, according to Politicker NJ.

Lautenberg has faced a primary challenge before, which also adds urgency to those looking to challenge him. The biggest criticisms of Rep. Robert E. Andrews’ unsuccessful 2008 challenge of Lautenberg is that he got into the race too late.

Andrews’ offensive move also hurt relations within his delegation. It would seem to serve as a cautionary tale to others considering a play against Lautenberg. But there are a number of ambitious would-be senators in New Jersey, and the idea that stars are aligning so a Republican could be appointed to the seat is shortening the patience of many.

The conventional wisdom is that the Senate race is more winnable for a Democrat, as opposed to the gubernatorial contest. But Democrats say they are dubious that Christie’s positive ratings will hold for a full year.

Last week, a source close to Booker said the mayor is still actively considering runs for governor and for the Senate.

Booker himself echoed that on CNN’s “Starting Point” on Monday. He called Christie “vulnerable” and said a gubernatorial run is still on the table. He is expected to make a decision about that race soon.

“I will consider United States Senate as well,” Booker added. “I am trying to make the decision based on where I can make the most difference in the city I love and the state I love and the nation I pledged my life to.”

Booker is the first name on most Democrats’ lips when it comes to statewide office, but Pallone is mentioned often as well. He has not made his intentions clear, but his interest in the Senate is well-known. He has $3.5 million in cash on hand — an enormous sum for a congressman in a relatively safe House district.

Should Booker opt for a Senate race, a Booker-Pallone primary is not out of the question, although that scenario is seen as boosting Lautenberg if in fact a three-way race materializes.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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