It was more scholarly panel than rally at the most publicized event so far in U.S. Rep. Rush Holt's campaign for a Senate seat.The event Tuesday was called Geek Out, the guest stars mostly scientists who talked about their work and Holt's beliefs. And the theme for the event -- and Holt's entire campaign -- was how more scientific thinking could help politicians make better policy.

"We need to use facts for illumination," said Holt, who has a doctorate in physics and who worked in academia before running for Congress in 1998.

Through the event and other elements of his campaign, Holt, whose parents were both politicians in his native West Virginia, is trying to sell himself as a liberal, thoughtful and wonky alternative to Newark Mayor Cory Booker heading into the Aug. 13 special Senate primaries. Polls show Holt, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver jostling for second place.

All of them profess confidence, in part because the turnout for the primary is expected to be so low that it could set up a surprise.

The primary winner will face a Republican -- either Franklin Township physician Alieta Eck or former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan -- in an unusual October special election to serve the last 15 months of the term of Frank Lautenberg, who died at 89 in June.

About 200 Holt supporters -- from college students to retirees -- convened in a conference room at Mercer County Community College for Geek Out while others watched online, including at Holt fundraising house parties in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Two scientists from Princeton, where Holt previously was assistant director of the plasma physics laboratory, and one from UCLA joined him in comfortable chairs on a stage. Despite some technical difficulties, a Columbia University researcher joined through an online chat, as did Steven Chu, the former federal energy secretary and now a physics professor at Stanford.

Holt was the host and subject of the forum, showing some of the crafty videos he's made explaining his policy positions. While parts of the event were scripted, some were clearly not, including a detailed discussion about technological innovations in the nation's power grid.

Holt laid out why he believes student loans should have the same interest rates that banks get for their own loans, that stock trades should be taxed to discourage speculative trading by computers and carbon should be taxed to discourage pollution, among other topics.

He also called for more government funding for scientific research, including space exploration, infrastructure and education and said Social Security should also be expanded. And he characterized President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul as a step in the right direction, but said the nation should have a so-called single-payer health insurance system.

"We have to break the mindset in many Republicans and Democrats alike that America is a poor debtor nation," he said. "We are a wealthy nation and we should act like it."

Crusading journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story of the National Security Agency domestic surveillance, wasn't able to connect online, but sent an endorsement that Holt read during the nearly two-hour production. "I'm sincerely excited by the prospect of Sen. Rush Holt," he said.

Holt has long been a critic of the government doing surveillance on U.S. citizens without warrants, and is calling for the end of the NSA program Greenwald helped expose.

"It treats Americans as suspects first and citizens second," Holt said.

Holt's followers are committed but generally not fawning. But at Tuesday's event, they applauded him several times, including when he told them, "It would be a good idea to have at least one scientist in the Senate, don't you?"


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