By Barbara Goldberg
MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey (Reuters) - Newark Mayor Cory Booker appeared poised for victory on Tuesday as New Jersey held a special election to choose party nominees in the race to fill the state's empty U.S. Senate seat.
Booker, a Democrat, held a strong lead in public opinion polls, with a 37-point edge over his nearest challenger among likely Democratic voters in one recent survey.
But with the primary being held amid the summer vacation season, voter turnout will have a significant impact on the actual results, said David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.
"In this election, it's dramatically difficult to figure out who a likely voter is. Half the state's down the shore," Redlawsk said.
At a polling place inside a Maplewood church, 30 election workers staffed idle voting machines and passed the hours playing games on their cell phones and chatting with one another in the otherwise empty room.
As of mid-afternoon, 50 Democrats and not a single Republican had cast ballots in District 20, one of four districts voting at the church, an election worker said. That compared with about 500 votes cast in the district in the last presidential election, he said.
"To have a special election in the middle of vacation time is a problem," said Ian Grodman, chairman of the Democratic Committee in Maplewood, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one.
"A very small number of people will be making the determination for the greater population," he said.
Concern and controversy over the timing of the election emerged promptly after the Senate seat came open with the death in June of Senator Frank Lautenberg at age 89. The liberal Democrat had been elected to the Senate five times.
To fill the seat, Republican Governor Chris Christie called the August 13 primary and set a special election for October 16, three weeks ahead of the November 5 general election, when he is seeking re-election.
Democrats charged that the two fall elections should have been scheduled for the same day but that Christie was avoiding being on the same ballot as Booker, who could attract both strong Democratic and minority turnout.
Also seeking the Democratic party's nomination are Representative Frank Pallone, who has polled in second place, Representative Rush Holt and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
But they have found little traction against the well-funded and well-known Booker, considered a rising political star.
The Newark mayor has enjoyed the support of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and he has made himself a presence on social media with a prolific Twitter account and a penchant for responding to constituent requests.
He once rushed into a burning building to help save a woman from the smoke and flames in her apartment.
"Famously willing to run after a mugger or into a burning building, and to move into the projects and play late-night basketball with kids there, the Rhodes scholar and Stanford- and Yale-educated lawyer grabbed headlines but also restored a sense of hope to the neglected city," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in its endorsement of Booker.
The mayor is credited with bringing $1 billion in new development to Newark, including the city's first new downtown hotel in 40 years and the relocation of major companies, including Panasonic, which is building a new North American headquarters downtown.
The New York Times, in its endorsement of Booker, noted that under his tenure, Newark schools got a $100 million gift from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Booker has "made a national name for himself by bringing new thinking, honesty and compassion to the hidebound, corrupt and cold city government in Newark," the Times wrote.
Opponents have criticized his ambitious nature and asked whether he is more concerned with himself than with his constituents. An article in The New York Times last week raised questions about the circumstances of Booker's stake in an Internet start-up company and his close involvement with Silicon Valley executives.
On the Republican side, Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, is vying with Alieta Eck, a physician, for the party's spot in the October 16 special general election.
Lonegan, a Tea Party conservative, led Eck 74 to 10 percent among Republican likely voters in a Quinnipiac University poll taken earlier this month.
That poll showed Booker leading 54 to 29 percent over Lonegan in a general election match-up.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Eric Walsh and Dan Grebler)