TRENTON, N.J. — When it comes to name recognition, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance has it. A longtime Republican state lawmaker, his family has lived in north-central New Jersey's 7th Congressional District since colonial times.
But his challenger, Democrat Ed Potosnak, is just as proud to have never held office.
"Since politics has been his career his whole life, he puts that ahead of doing what's right," Potosnak said of his one-term opponent. "He's not the congressman we expected."
The 58-year-old Lance, who lives in Clinton, served in the New Jersey Legislature for 18 years and as counsel to Gov. Thomas Kean beforehand.
Potosnak, 38, lives in North Plainfield and is a former high school chemistry teacher and small business owner. He is not without any political experience: He served for two years in U.S. Rep. Mike Honda's office as an Albert Einstein Fellow, working on environmental and educational federal legislation.
On Nov. 2, he's taking on Lance — a better-known, better-funded incumbent, for the 7th District seat. The district, which includes Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties has slightly more Democrats than Republicans. However, independent voters make up a large block and they tend to swing Republican.
An early summer poll showed Potosnak closing the gap to as close as four percentage points.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the race won't be a "blow out" for Potosnak, but it will be a steep uphill battle.
"Even an underfunded Democrat can get 40 or 42 percent of the vote in the district," Dworkin said. "It's awfully hard to get 51 percent."
Potosnak, who is openly gay, has criticized Lance for voting against repealing to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. As an aside, Potosnak was a residence counselor at the same Rutgers University dormitory where freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after police say his roommate secretly recorded him with another male student, lived.
"We need to ensure that all students, no matter where they are, are able to live openly and honestly," Potosnak said.
But Dworkin said he seriously doubts sexual orientation is going to be an issue. "Jobs and the economy and clearly the No. 1 issues," he said.
Potosnak pledges to improve access to small business loans, accelerate tax write-offs for capital equipment purchases and wants to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
Lance said that the way to create jobs is to create certainty for business owners by reducing health care costs and making loans more accessible.
Lance said he voted against the health care reform act because he didn't think it would reduce overall health care costs. He wants to replace it with medical malpractice reform, small business insurance pooling and letting families and businesses buy insurance across state lines.
The Republican's big ticket item has been reining in spending; he wants to see some mechanism to stop the federal government's unlimited borrowing. As a state lawmaker he sued a previous governor over state borrowing and pushed for a state constitutional amendment to require voter approval for all borrowing.
Potosnak said Lance considers himself a fiscal conservative until it comes to campaign season. He has criticized Lance for taking so much PAC money from Wall Street firms, like Goldman Sachs, and from housing lenders and pharmaceutical companies.
Lance sits on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees all components of the nation's housing and financial services sectors.
"He's representing the special interests that fund his campaign over the needs of our families and businesses," Potosnak said.
Of the $1 million Lance raised, more than half was PAC money.
Those donations have led to a serious fundraising advantage. Potosnak has only raised a total of $147,000 and has $72,000 left to spend compared to Lance's remaining $260,000.
Lance disputes that campaign donations have influenced his votes.
He points to the fact that since going to Washington he has voted against the $350 billion bank bailout bill, voted for credit card reform laws and for laws to set mortgage standards and voted to curb bonuses for Wall Street companies receiving bailout money.
For Lance's part, he doesn't plan on helping Potosnak in the name recognition arena. In fact, he doesn't mention him at all on his campaign site on in the one television ad he has run.
"I have always voted my conscience and will continue to do so," Lance said. "My views are based upon fiscal responsibility."
The candidates have yet to debate, but are scheduled to face-off on Monday before the Women's League of Voters and at another televised debate on New Jersey 12 Network Wednesday night.