By Victoria Cavaliere
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Newark Mayor Cory Booker cruised to an easy victory in New Jersey's special Democratic primary on Tuesday in the race to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat that has long been in Democratic hands.
If he wins the general election in October, Booker would become the state's first black U.S. senator.
Booker, who had been widely expected to win after holding strong leads in public opinion polls, was declared the winner by the Star-Ledger newspaper on NJ.com and The Bergen Record on NorthJersey.com less than an hour after polls closed.
"As your United Senator the direction I'll be most concerned with will not be right or left, it will be moving forward," Booker told about 200 supporters and campaign staff outside Newark's Prudential Center, one of the most visible signs of the downtrodden city's rebirth under his leadership, an indoor arena where the Rolling Stones performed last year and the New Jersey Devils regularly play hockey.
"I'm going to the Senate the same way I came to Newark: Determined to be a positive force," he said.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Booker had 59 percent of the vote, far ahead of his closest competitor, U.S. Representative Frank Pallone, who got 20 percent.
In the Republican primary, Steven Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey and a Tea Party conservative, was declared the unofficial winner over Alieta Eck, a physician, for the party's spot in the October 16 special general election. Lonegan claimed 80 percent, compared with 20 percent for Eck, NorthJersey.com said.
A poll earlier this month showed Booker beating Lonegan 54 percent to 29 percent in a general election match-up.
Concern and controversy over the timing of the election emerged promptly after the Senate seat became open when Senator Frank Lautenberg died in June at age 89. The liberal Democrat had been elected to the Senate five times.
To elect a senator, Republican Governor Chris Christie called Tuesday's primary and set a special election for October 16, three weeks ahead of the November 5 general election, when he is seeking re-election.
To fill the seat temporarily, Christie named Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican who said he would not seek the seat on a permanent basis.
Democrats charged that the two fall elections should have been scheduled for the same day but that Christie was trying to avoid being on the same ballot as Booker, who could attract strong Democratic and minority turnout.
Turnout was thin in Tuesday's primary, held amid the summer vacation season.
Also seeking the Democratic Party's nomination with Pallone were Representative Rush Holt and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. But they found little traction against the well-funded and well-known Booker, considered a rising political star.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Eric Walsh, Dan Grebler, Lisa Shumaker and Mohammad Zargham)