In 2012, Christie called Lautenberg a “partisan hack” and an “embarrassment” and said it was time for him to retire. Lautenberg called Christie “the name-calling governor” and, in one speech, “the king of liars.”
Lautenberg did not possess a dynamic speaking style or telegenic face and for his first 14 years in the Senate, he was often in the shadow of New Jersey’s other, better known senator, Bill Bradley, a former pro basketball player and 2000 presidential candidate. But he proved a formidable and bruising foe to Republicans who constantly considered him vulnerable politically.
Running for an open Senate seat in 1982, Lautenberg won 51 percent of the vote against Fenwick, the model for the cartoon character Lacey Davenport in “Doonesbury.” The win, financed largely with $3 million of Lautenberg’s own fortune, was a shocker.
Fenwick was 72 when Lautenberg questioned her capacity to serve in the Senate. On the campaign trail, he criticized her “capability” to be a senator, but some observers seemed to think he was going after her age — a fact that was noted 26 years later when he ran for re-election at age 84.
“It’s hard when your own words come back to haunt you, isn’t it, Mr. Lautenberg?” said an ad for his Democratic primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, whom he defeated handily before beating former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer in the general election.
After Lautenberg won the 1982 election, Nicholas Brady, who had been appointed to serve the remainder of the previous term, resigned early to give Lautenberg valuable seniority over other new senators. He was sworn in Dec. 27, 1982, by a federal judge from Denver while he was vacationing in Vail, Colo.
In 1988, Lautenberg faced Pete Dawkins, a handsome Heisman Trophy winner who attended the U.S. Military Academy and went on to become a brigadier general and successful executive. Lautenberg’s campaign assailed Dawkins as an out-of-touch carpetbagger and ran ads urging Dawkins, “Be Real, Pete.” Lautenberg won with 54 percent of the vote.