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WATCH LIVE: Menendez, Hugin square off in New Jersey Senate debate

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., seemed the clear frontrunner in New Jersey’s Senate race the moment he announced his re-election campaign in late March. Democrats have a wide voter registration advantage over Republicans in New Jersey, which last elected a Republican U.S. senator in 1972.

But Republican Bob Hugin has emerged as a surprisingly strong challenger in the final weeks of the 2018 midterm elections, turning what was expected to be an easy victory for Democrats into one of the year’s most hotly contested races.

The race has also become one of the nastiest this cycle, with both candidates swiping at each other ahead of their only debate of the election on Wednesday.

The debate will be co-moderated by PBS NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins and NJTV chief political correspondent Michael Aron.

The debate between Menendez and Hugin is scheduled to begin 8 p.m. ET in Newark, New Jersey. Watch live in the player above.

Earlier this month, Hugin, a former pharmaceutical company CEO, released a campaign ad resurfacing claims that Menendez was “engaging with prostitutes” in the Dominican Republic. Menendez has denied the allegations and called Hugin a “slimeball.”

The ad was part of Hugin’s ongoing attack against Menendez over his federal corruption and bribery trial. Federal prosecutors indicted Menendez in 2015 on bribery and corruption charges for allegedly accepting gifts from Florida doctor Salomon Melgen — including free flights to the Dominican Republic –and in return using his office to help the friend and donor’s business interests. The prostitution allegations came up in the case, but Menendez denied them and he was not charged in connection to the claims.

A federal judge declared a mistrial last year after a jury failed to reach a verdict in the case. The Department of Justice initially said it would retry Menendez but later dropped the charges. Menendez pled not guilty and has said he is innocent of all of the criminal charges.

The increasingly nasty Senate race in New Jersey has forced Democrats to take time away from focusing on Senate races across the country. Democrats are defending 10 Senate seats this cycle in states that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Menendez had led Hugin by double digits in some polls as recently as early October. A recent poll by Rutgers-Eagleton showed the race has tightened, with Menendez leading Hugin by just 5 points, 51 to 46 percent.