All of us here at the Menendez campaign have been pretty fed up with the petty attacks against the Senator, from NJ GOP chairman Tom Wilson's Ann Coulter-isms to Kean, Jr.'s own vague and unfounded personal attacks. Now, there are a few options for responding to this kind of Rove-style campaign. You can ignore it. You can send out surrogates to protest. Or you can confront the tactics, head on. Senator Menendez insisted on the latter.
Friday morning in Atlantic City, at a meeting of the New Jersey Association of Counties, Senator Menendez had some choice words for Tom Kean, Jr..
My record is clear, and I will not stand by another minute and let my opponent malign me or my service to the people I have represented throughout my career. Tom, you may be playing with George Bush's campaign playbook, but you're on the field with a different kind of Democrat....
One week ago, his state party chairman stooped to the lowest form of politics, and said that if I had my way, the terrorist Zarqawi would still be alive to murder innocents in Iraq and plot attacks against our country. And Tom Kean, Jr.? No, rebuke, no apology, not a word.
That's not a campaign of courage, that's a campaign of cowardice.
You have to earn the right to talk about honesty and integrity and frankly Tom, when it comes to ethics and character, you have no standing to lecture anyone.
What was Kean's response to the speech? Well, even though he was supposed to be sitting on the stage with Senator Menendez, he chickened out and waited outside until the Senator was done speaking. He then went up to the podium and delivered the same canned speech he'd been planning all along, with absolutely no response to the Senator's comments. After Kean, Jr. spoke, reporters tried to get him on the record. No such luck. As Josh Gohlke of the Bergen Record put it, Kean and his crew "stampeded down a carpeted hallway and into an elevator."
Several reporters managed to keep up, blurting out questions the candidate was determined not to answer.
Did he care to respond to Democratic candidate Robert Menendez's scathing speech just a few minutes earlier in the same ballroom? Was he, as Menendez charged, a lightweight armed only with empty attacks?
The Kean contingent stampeded down a carpeted hallway and into an elevator. The reporters and questions squeezed into it with them. Kean kept repeating a few slogans.
"I'm proud of both my record and my vision for the future of the country," Kean reiterated, this time with finality, as everyone spilled back out of the elevator and he hurried off. "Thank you very much!"
After talking for a few minutes, the reporters realized they had entered and exited the elevator on the same floor. So ended a strange episode in a campaign that is reaching impressive levels of absurdity, given that it's only June.
When the only impressive aspect of his campaign is the new level of absurdity he's been able to reach, Tom Kean, Jr.'s got to be wondering what he's doing in this race at all. The Beltway Republicans think they're going to win this race the same way they've won races all across the country -- shoveling fear and smear. Welcome to Jersey, Rove. It's not going to work this time.