- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

NEW YORK — Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez denied he is under federal investigation, while Republican challenger Thomas H. Kean Jr. rated the Bush administration a “B-minus” during a combative debate yesterday between New Jersey’s two U.S. Senate candidates.

The hourlong debate, in which the two men often spoke over each other so loudly that it was difficult to hear what either was saying, showcased an intense contest marked by corruption charges.

Democrats usually win easily in New Jersey, but corruption charges against Mr. Menendez have the party fighting to keep the Senate seat.

“There is no such federal criminal investigation,” Mr. Menendez said when asked to respond to an ad by Mr. Kean’s camp.

Mr. Menendez said repeatedly that Mr. Kean is in agreement with President Bush and out of touch with state voters.

“When you’re wrong on the war in Iraq, when you’re wrong on privatizing Social Security … then you have to play the politics of smear and personal destruction,” he said.

Federal investigators are examining a rental deal in which a nonprofit group received millions of dollars in federal funding while Mr. Menendez was a House member, the Star-Ledger reported last month.

“The voters of the state deserve to know that they’ve got a senator under federal criminal investigation,” Mr. Kean said during the debate, which was sponsored by New York and New Jersey CBS affiliates and the New York Times.

Mr. Kean pledged to bring a higher ethical standard to state politics. “We’ve had our state be the butt of jokes on David Letterman and Jay Leno,” he said.

Mr. Menendez told reporters after the debate that a subpoena for records doesn’t mean federal authorities are investigating him.

A Menendez ad says the Kean campaign consulted with a convicted felon, and the Democrat yesterday referenced a report in the Star-Ledger article that said Mr. Kean accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from state contractors even though, as a state senator, he introduced a bill two years ago to ban political candidates from receiving such donations.

Mr. Menendez and Mr. Kean have been at a virtual tie in the race, but two recent polls gave Mr. Menendez a slight edge.

When asked yesterday to rate the Bush administration, Mr. Kean answered “B-minus.” The Republican has distanced himself from the president throughout his campaign.

He made headlines last week by calling for the resignation House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert over the Illinois Republican’s handling of the scandal involving lurid messages sent by former Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, to a male teenager who was a former page.

“There’s things I’ve been frustrated by,” Mr. Kean said. He said he disagrees with Mr. Bush on stem-cell research, energy policy, the environment and spending but supports Mr. Bush’s approach to tax cuts and fighting terrorism.

Democrats said Mr. Kean’s B-minus rating proves he supports the president.

“B-minus makes the honor roll,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat who attended the debate. “I think that Tom Kean made our case for us today, convincingly.”

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