New Jersey’s major-party candidates for U.S. Senate clashed Wednesday in the only debate of the campaign, sticking mostly to refrains familiar from their TV commercials in jabs about corruption and fealty to President Donald Trump.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic incumbent, apologized early in the debate, which was hosted by NJTV in Newark, for the conduct that led to his admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee, after a trial last year ended with a hung jury.

“The reality is I understand there are people in our state who are disappointed, and I apologize to them,” he said. “But I also want them to look at my totality of service of standing up for the people of New Jersey.”

His Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, said “Bob Menendez has failed and embarrassed us” and that it’s unrealistic to think that would change if re-elected to another term.

“This is not a trial we’re here today. This is a job interview for the six years in our state. And the kind of behavior, the kind of testimony – not qualified to be re-elected,” Hugin said.

“It’s not just corrupt. It’s ineffective,” Hugin said. “Twenty-five years in Washington, 16 years with a Democratic president, and New Jersey is dead last. We get the least back from Washington that any state in the country. It’s not right. It’s time for change.”

Hugin, a former chief executive officer of the pharmaceutical company Celgene, insisted he’d be independent – but Menendez asserted his repeated skepticism, citing that Hugin had been a fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 campaign and delegate for him at the Republican National Convention.

“Every election’s important, but this election has never mattered more. Everyone we have fought for and won is threatened by the Trump administration,” Menendez said.

“He will be another vote for Donald Trump,” Menendez said. “I will stand up to Donald Trump.”

Hugin said he differs from Trump on offshore drilling, infrastructure, the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductibility, abortion and gay marriage.

“No, I’m not a Trump Republican, I’m an independent Republican,” Hugin said. “I’ve been independent all my life.”

He said it was to be expected that Menendez would focus on Trump.

“That’s because he doesn’t want to talk about anything about his record of corruption and failure,” Hugin said.

The candidates also contrasted on other matters, including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The debate focused mostly on the merits of Kavanaugh and the other justice Trump appointed, Neil Gorsuch, on the sexual misconduct allegations that roiled the end of the Kavanaugh vetting.

“What I understand about Justice Kavanaugh, he voted in line with Merrick Garland 90 percent of the time, and so I don’t see as being extremist,” said Hugin, referencing the appeals court judge nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 by President Barack Obama. Garland never got a hearing.

Menendez said Kavanaugh showed as an appeals court judge that he’s outside the mainstream.

“His support of these judges ultimately go to show that he is not the moderate that he wants to now paint himself to be, that he is a Trump Republican,” he said. “He says he embraces the president’s nominees. The president’s nominees take us back to a time and place that none of us want to go to.”

Pressed about comments about women and gays in connection with the prospect of them joining a Princeton University eating club, Hugin said it needed to be considered in the context of the time, 40 years ago, and that his views have changed.

“You can’t in 60 minutes change what you’ve been for 60 years,” Menendez responded.

On issues, the candidates often sought to emphasize centrist positions. Menendez spoke of working with Republicans on immigration reform and defended the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“Look, the problem is not ICE,” Menendez said. “The problem is an immigration policy that detains and divides families at the border who are not criminal aliens and instead of focusing on criminal aliens, this is an administration that just wants to rack up the numbers.”

Hugin said “one of my highest priorities” as senator would be “to transform the delivery of health care.”  He said changes are needed in how payments are made, that Medicaid should be decentralized and that pay should be linked to performance and health outcomes.

“There are some very good things in the Affordable Care Act which I support and we should always maintain – like some of the things we’ve talked about, pre-existing conditions,” Hugin said. “But the Affordable Care Act was virtually a fraud on the working poor.”

Menendez said Hugin in the past hasn’t been as supportive of the ACA as he exhibited in the debate.

“The last thing we need is a greedy drug company CEO going to solve health care in our nation,” said Menendez.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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