(CNN) - With only a week left until New Jersey’s Senate special election, the only civil moment of Wednesday's final showdown between Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan came at the night's close, with a handshake.
But in between that small gesture of political sportsmanship and the moderator Jim Rosenfield's call to order, New Jersey's senate candidates meted out relentless, and sometimes personal, verbal assaults, criticizing each other on everything from their stances on same-sex marriage to the on-going partial government shutdown.
In front of a mostly-full auditorium on the Glassboro campus of Rowan University, Booker, the two-term Democratic mayor of Newark, repeatedly pigeon-holed the Republican Lonegan as "Tea Party extremist," more concerned with trying and "run and replace Rush Limbaugh than Frank Lautenberg."
"If you want more of what is making Washington go wrong, vote for Steve Lonegan," Booker said.
Lonegan, the former mayor of the northern New Jersey town of Bogota, repeatedly dismissed Booker's characterization that he only represents the more conservative bloc of the GOP - riffing that the Democrat's "acting coaches" had encouraged him to use the words "Tea Party as much as possible" - and also redoubled his campaign refrain that the nationally-recognized Booker is a "Hollywood stand-in" for President Barack Obama.
The conservative underdog harped on this assertion so much that Booker said he wasn't entirely sure whether Lonegan is competing "against me or Barack Obama."
"Both," Lonegan said. "Because you are one in the same."
Lonegan also maligned Booker for his close ties to corporate interests and for his association with outgoing New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent $1 million earlier this week on a commercial in support of the Democratic candidate. Lonegan also asserted that Booker is more concerned with using his power for personal gain than bettering the city he represents.
"If there was an organization that was called Politicians for Their Own Prosperity, you would be a charter member," Lonegan told Booker.
While Lonegan did attempt to diminish Booker's record as Newark mayor, saying that under Booker's tenure, unemployment in the city has gone from 8 to 14%, the murder rate is on the rise, and Newark is now a safe haven for illegal immigrants and criminals, most of the debate centered on national themes, with both candidates serving as proxies for the greater ideological war been waged in Washington.
Lonegan said delaying the implementation of the president's signature healthcare law remains "absolutely essential."
"I am proud Republicans are finally standing up to this tyrant," Lonegan said.
Booker pinned the partial federal shutdown on Republican intransigence.
When a moderator alerted the two candidates that they would take office in time to vote over whether to raise the debt ceiling, Booker said he would vote to raise the nation's borrowing limit. Lonegan said he would only do so if the White House and Senate Democrats agreed to spending cuts, adding the familiar Republican calling card: "it's time government starts living within its means."
One of the most heated exchanges began when Lonegan told the audience he would be in favor of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Booker countered Lonegan, saying his Newark constituents wouldn't be able to swim in the Passaic River without the EPA's help.
Lonegan provided a different reason for why Newark residents may not be able to go for a dip.
"You may not be able to swim in that river, but I think it's because of all the bodies floating around of shooting victims," Lonegan said.
Booker, stunned, replied, "Oh my god."
Even before the debate began, the candidates fired verbal warning shots across each other's bows on Twitter.
Booker, who's rise to national prominence has partly been fueled by his almost ubiquitous social media footprint, tweeted:
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) October 9, 2013
As both candidates come down the final stretch of the campaign to fill the remainder of late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg's term, a Quinnipiac University survey released hours before the debate indicated Booker owning a 53%-41% lead among likely New Jersey voters over Lonegan.
Hoping for a boost in the polls, the Lonegan campaign may get a bump from one of the nation's most well-recognized Republicans: Sarah Palin. While the ex-mayor name-checked GOP senators Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Pau of Kentucky, during the debate, its the former Republican vice presidential nominee who will join the New Jerseyian at a rally Saturday, according to a statement from Tea Party Express spokeswoman Amy Kremer.