TRENTON, N.J. — It's become the political equivalent of a wrestling cage match, pitting a brash, combative Republican governor against an equally crusty U.S. senator 39 years his senior.
When in front of a mic, Gov. Chris Christie seldom resists an opportunity to throw punches at Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who has become his biggest Democratic antagonist. And vice versa.
The governor has called the senator a "partisan hack" and an "embarrassment" and, unafraid to touch the age issue, told the 88-year-old Lautenberg it was time for him to retire.
Lautenberg has assailed Christie as "the name-calling governor" but also has responded in kind, including last year when he called the governor "the king of liars" in a speech to state Democrats. (Lautenberg also once famously labeled then-Vice President Dick Cheney a "chickenhawk.")
The escalating war of words suggests a genuine and lasting mutual dislike. And it prompted an editorial Friday from the state's largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, appealing to both men to "put down their spitballs" and find a way to work together.
"The rivalry between Christie and Lautenberg has long since passed the point of silliness," the newspaper said.
Lautenberg has repeatedly attacked Christie over a number of policies, such as the governor's decision to tighten eligibility requirements in the state's health care program, and his controversial plan to consolidate the state's public universities, which the senator said was crafted with powerful special interests in mind, not students.
The bad blood goes back at least two years, to when Christie abandoned construction of the biggest public works project in America, a commuter rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York. Lautenberg had thrown elbows in the Senate to secure $3 billion in federal funding for the project.
The decision seemed to surprise Lautenberg. But by the next day, he was hopping mad, calling for a federal investigation into the cancellation of the underwater tunnel and challenging Christie's accounting of the project's costs.
Just last week, a federal report finding fault with Christie's justification for killing the project leaked out, accompanied by a fresh attack by Lautenberg.
"Gov. Christie wiped it out with a campaign of public deception," he said. "The future of New Jersey's commuters was sacrificed for the short term political needs of the Governor."
But in perhaps the most audacious challenge yet to Lautenberg, a battle-ready Christie surrogate turned the tables on the senator Wednesday during a hearing in Washington by a transportation subcommittee Lautenberg chairs.
When Lautenberg started grilling Christie appointee Bill Baroni, deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, about the fairness of bridge and tunnel tolls to Manhattan that are set to reach up to $15, the witness switched subjects and put the senator under the microscope.
Having done his homework, Baroni pointed out that at one time Lautenberg had a free E-Z Pass – an automated toll charging system that enables motorists to use faster toll lanes – paid for by the Port Authority because he had formerly been an agency commissioner.
"Senator, it's impossible to argue fairness in tolls if you don't pay them," said Baroni, a former Republican state senator.
After several testy exchanges, Lautenberg abruptly gaveled the hearing to a close.
Baroni, it turns out, was an obvious choice to be Christie's attack dog.
As a lawyer for the Republicans in 2002, Baroni argued before the U.S. Supreme Court against allowing Lautenberg onto the New Jersey ballot. Lautenberg had retired from politics two years earlier, but he was recruited back into the U.S. Senate race when then-Sen. Robert Torricelli abruptly quit his re-election bid amid accusations of corruption.
After the Washington showdown, Christie has piled on.
"Frank Lautenberg got his hand caught in the cookie jar," the governor said.
In an interview Friday with New York radio station WOR, Christie kept at it. He said Baroni had been summoned to Washington to be a "victim in a political ambush."
"As it turns out, Sen. Lautenberg was made to look both selfish and foolish," the governor said.