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Candidates for lt. gov. spar in debate, welcome Biden to NJ

October 6, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, file photo, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the state capital in Trenton, N.J. New Jersey’s two major-party candidates for lieutenant governor this year, Oliver and former state Sen. Diane Allen, will meet Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in their only debate. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
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FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, file photo, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the state capital in Trenton, N.J. New Jersey’s two major-party candidates for lieutenant governor this year, Oliver and former state Sen. Diane Allen, will meet Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in their only debate. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
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FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, file photo, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the state capital in Trenton, N.J. New Jersey’s two major-party candidates for lieutenant governor this year, Oliver and former state Sen. Diane Allen, will meet Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in their only debate. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The Democrat and Republican running for lieutenant governor in this year’s election clashed over COVID-19 vaccination requirements and a handful of other issues, but they both agreed they’d welcome President Joe Biden to the campaign trail — though for different reasons.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Republican Diane Allen met Tuesday in their first and only debate as they run alongside Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who’s seeking a second term, and Republican Jack Ciattarelli in the Nov. 2 election.

Former President Donald Trump’s name has come up throughout the campaign, but Biden has largely remained in the background.

Allen criticized the president’s handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan as bungling and pointed out how polls have shown his job approvals wavering.

“I would love that,” she said. “His numbers have just sunk.”

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Oliver, who was elected with Murphy in 2017, criticized Republicans for failing to work with Biden and said she would welcome him to the state to campaign alongside her and Murphy.

“I am proud of Joe Biden,” she said.

A swell of anger toward Biden could put wind in the sails of the GOP campaign, which is behind in polls, but popular components of the president’s agenda give Democrats reason to welcome him as well.

Both candidates said they support the bipartisan infrastructure deal, but disagreed over the larger spending package that Democrats are currently debating in Washington, with Oliver in favor of spending more on “human infrastructure” like programs for expanded child and day care.

The debate lacked the raucous crowd at last week’s first gubernatorial debate between Murphy and Ciattarelli, and while it did not become as heated as the sparring between the top of the ticket, it did cover a lot of ground.

Allen said she supported getting the vaccine for COVID-19 for those eligible but said “parents are the ones who should be in charge.”

Oliver, who’s the No. 2 official in Murphy’s administration that has required vaccines or regular testing in hospitals and schools, said: ”We have a public health system because we need to make sure everyone’s health is protected.”

On abortion, Allen reiterated her support for a woman’s right to choose and said Roe v. Wade won’t be turned back, but she opposed the Reproductive Freedom Act, legislation to guarantee access to abortion. Oliver, along with Murphy, backs the bill and said she thinks it will be passed in the state.

Voters are casting ballots for Murphy and Oliver together as a ticket, and Ciattarelli and Allen together, as well. The election is Nov. 2, but mail-in ballots are already being returned to county offices. Early in-person voting is set for Oct. 23-31 for the first time this year.

Oliver serves as the head of New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs in her capacity as the state’s No. 2 leader. The department is responsible for, among other things, providing financial and technical help to local governments in the state. Her stewardship of the department didn’t come up directly Tuesday.

She served in the state Assembly before becoming lieutenant governor, serving as speaker from 2010-2014.

Allen served in the Assembly beginning in 1996 before being elected to the state Senate in 1997. She served there, representing parts of Burlington County, until 2017. She was a news anchor in the 1970s through the 1990s on Philadelphia television, with stints on KYW and WCAU.

No Democrat has won reelection in over four decades in New Jersey, but polls have shown Murphy with a lead over Ciattarelli.

If Ciattarelli and Allen win in November, Allen would be the state’s third lieutenant governor, after Oliver and Republican Kim Guadagno before her.

The debate was sponsored by the New Jersey Globe, the nonprofit social justice organization Project Read and Rider University’s Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics.

Murphy and Ciattarelli meet in a final debate on Oct. 12.