The Senate campaign of Newark Mayor Cory Booker said his Republican rival was "bigoted" for saying that Booker was "acting ambiguous" in an effort to attract gay votes.
Booker's team was reacting to comments by Republican Steve Lonegan, a conservative who is trailing badly in polls.
Lonegan, who is known for his blunt style, seemed to raise old rumors that Booker might be gay and told the conservative Newsmax TV that recent Booker comments where he said he doesn't care if people do think he is gay because "I want to challenge people on their homophobia" were "weird."
"As a guy, I personally like being a guy," Lonegan said.
"I don't know if you saw the stories last year. They've been out for quite a bit about how he likes to go out at three o'clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure," Lonegan said referring to an interview Booker gave to the magazine DuJour last summer where he said an ex-girlfriend "turned me on to mani-pedis."
"It was described as his peculiar fetish," Lonegan continued in his NewsMax interview. "I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That's my fetish, but we'll just compare the two."
When asked directly if he thought Booker was gay, Lonegan answered that he did not know, but "maybe that helps to get him the gay vote by acting ambiguous."
The Booker campaign released a statement that said, "Mr. Lonegan's comments are disappointing, bigoted and far outside the mainstream, implying that a man is not a man if he's gay."
Lonegan defended himself at a news conference Thursday saying his comments were not homophobic and that he did not want to focus on what he called Booker's "Hollywood lifestyle."
"I don't care if Cory Booker is gay or straight. The problem is he is too liberal for New Jersey," Lonegan said.
Lonegan has been raising eyebrows for awhile in his campaign saying he wants to "expose" Booker, which some people saw as coded language for raising questions about the mayor's sexual orientation.
Booker, 44, has said many times he is straight, but is still asked about longstanding rumors that he is gay. This week in a profile in The Washington Post Booker discussed his "great dismay" that he has not "settled down with a life partner," but he wants to keep that part of his life private.
"Because how unfair is it to a young lady to put them in the spotlight if they haven't signed up for that yet?" Booker said. "People who think I'm gay, some part of me thinks it's wonderful, because I want to challenge people on their homophobia."
"I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I'm straight,'" Booker said.
Troy Stevenson, the head of state's largest and most influential gay rights group, Garden State Equality, called Lonegan's comments "dangerous."
"He's a loose cannon, it appears as though this type of controversy is how he is trying to gain notoriety I almost think he is stoking the controversy," Stevenson said. "One of our primary focuses is on LGBT youth and it is extremely concerning to me to see a public official at this level running for the United States Senate to make comments that make them feel shameful, that makes them feel like an archaic stereotype that to be a real man or real woman you need to do something in lockstep with the 1950s. I think people forget that wasn't a good time for anybody that wasn't a straight white male."
The election is in October and the most recent poll in the race from Fairleigh Dickinson University shows Booker with a commanding lead of 28 points, 50 percent to Lonegan's 22 percent.
This story has been updated since it was first posted.