NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cory Booker, New Jersey's celebrity mayor once hailed as a transformative leader in the tradition of Barack Obama, is widely expected to win Wednesday's special election to fill a U.S. Senate seat - but maybe not in the landslide some expected.
A Quinnipiac poll on Tuesday found Booker, the Democrat mayor of Newark, besting Republican Steve Lonegan, a conservative activist with limited name recognition but a flair for attention-grabbing events, by a margin of 54 to 40 percent.
An Eagleton poll released on Monday gave Booker an even bigger advantage - 58 to 36 percent - over Lonegan, the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the conservative Koch brothers.
"If Lonegan's turnout operation is stronger and Booker's base stays home thinking it is all wrapped up, then all bets are off," said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton poll at Rutgers University.
"The problem with this is we just don't know who's going to show up on a Wednesday," Redlawsk said. The regular election, when Governor Chris Christie is heavily favored to win a second term, will be held on the first Tuesday in November.
Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate, rocketed to fame as an idealistic politician in Newark, a former manufacturing center 12 miles from Manhattan where persistently high crime has made it a symbol of urban blight.
His first, losing bid for mayor - challenging Sharpe James, who had led New Jersey's largest city since 1986 - was the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary "Street Fight."
Elected mayor in 2006, Booker built a national profile as a media darling and charismatic booster for a struggling city. He was one of the first elected officials to embrace Twitter - often using it to deal directly with constituents - and now has 1.4 million followers. He likes to tweet inspirational phrases, poetry and quotes.
Last year, Booker rescued a neighbor from a burning building, and then recounted the story on Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show.
Lonegan emerged on the other side of the political spectrum. A former small-town mayor who unsuccessfully challenged Christie in the 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary, Lonegan has described Booker as a "Hollywood wannabe" more concerned with his own celebrity than with governing.
In September, on a night Booker was holding a fundraiser in California, Lonegan poked fun at his opponent by announcing a "Red Carpet" event in Newark. Another time, he held a press conference at the site of a shooting in Newark and chided Booker for being an absentee mayor.
"Lonegan has run a guerilla campaign," said Redlawsk. "It's what you do if you have no money, and he's done it perfectly."
But New Jersey voters, who have a long tradition of electing moderate Republicans as governor while favoring Democrats in presidential and U.S. Senate elections, may have been turned off by Lonegan's flaunted conservative positions.
A debate last week nearly ran late after Booker and Lonegan wound up in a fiery exchange over abortion. Lonegan opposes it, while Booker is pro-choice.
While Booker's elevation to the Senate looks fairly certain on Wednesday, political watchers generally agree that his luster has dimmed somewhat since the "Street Fight" days.
Often likened to Obama as another black politician capable of uniting disparate forces in the American political landscape, Booker's brand might have suffered as popular disillusionment with Obama has grown, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of politics at Princeton University.
"The whole notion of a transformative political figure seems less possible," Zelizer said.
(Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Gunna Dickson)