NEWARK – Bob Menendez wants voters to look at Bob Hugin and see Donald Trump.
And Hugin knows it.
So when the question was raised at Wednesday night’s TV debate as to whether Hugin was a “Trump-Republican,” the GOP Senate candidate was ready.
“I’m not a Trump Republican,” he said. “I’m an independent Republican.”
In some ways this was a remarkable comment.
A Republican seeking a U.S. Senate seat normally would be expected to align himself with a fellow Republican in the White House.
But this is also New Jersey where the latest polls show Trump’s approval rating at less than 40 percent.
So it makes sense for Hugin to distance himself from the president.
But this distancing went beyond that one sentence.
Hugin also expressed moderate, if not liberal, views on a variety of topics.
He said he was pro-choice, a supporter of gay rights and an opponent of both the Trump tax bill and offshore drilling, which the president has endorsed.
Hugin was not done.
He said he liked aspects of the Affordable Care Act, including allowing kids to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26 and not allowing insurance companies to discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions.
On immigration, Hugin supported a path to citizenship for those here illegally who have not committed any other crime and said of the migrant caravan in southern Mexico, “We do need to be compassionate.”
By this time a visitor from another state might have wondered why there was an election at all with this type of agreement.
Now, there are juicy issues in this race and they did make it into the debate.
We heard the expected accusations about Hugin getting rich by taking advantage of cancer patients and Menendez cavorting with underage prostitutes. The men did not shake hands as is common in just about all debates.
But one could not get away from how much Hugin sounded unlike any type of contemporary Republican, let alone a Trump Republican.
Menendez at times seemed bemused by all this. But he also wasn’t buying it.
He spoke of Hugin’s “debate conversion,” and at varying times said the Republican was lying.
For example, he insisted that Hugin previously had expressed support for the tax bill, although he disagreed with capping the deduction for state and local taxes at $10,000.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Hugin said he never liked the tax bill.
Hugin is not a politician, which many may see as a positive.
He wasn’t as smooth as Menendez and candidly admitted later that he failed to make points he should have made. He explained that this was his first debate of any kind.
That was a veiled swipe at a career politician like Menendez whose first debate was in the winter of 1974 when he ran for the Union City Board of Education.
Still, Hugin is no proverbial babe in the woods.
His accusation that the senator slept with prostitutes really is unsubstantiated, but Hugin refused to back off. His spin on this issue actually was Trumpian.
He said that three women who years ago denied having sex with Menendez – or even being prostitutes – are not the same women he’s referencing in his current TV ad.
That explanation is a bit murky to say the least.
So, where do we go from here?
Hugin may say he is not a “Trump Republican,” but as Menendez noted more than once, he supported Trump, contributed to his presidential campaign and said he would have voted for Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee, Brent Kavanaugh.
It’s really not easy these days for any Republican to not be a “Trump Republican.”
That’s Hugin’s dilemma.