By ANGELA DELLI SANTI
HILLSIDE, N.J. — Former CNN host Lou Dobbs is seriously considering running for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2012 as a stepping stone to a possible White House bid _ a congressional matchup that would pit one of illegal immigration’s biggest critics against a champion for immigrant rights.
Dobbs spokesman Robert Dilenschneider told The Associated Press Wednesday that Dobbs may challenge Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, but is considering other offers he’s received since his abrupt exit from CNN on Nov. 11 after 29 years on the news network.
“A logical step for Lou, should he choose to go into public life, is to run for the next Senate seat in New Jersey, or to accept some kind of appointed position, nationally or in New Jersey,” Dilenschneider said.
A Dobbs candidacy in 2012 would set up a pitched battle over immigration against Menendez, the Senate’s only Hispanic member.
Dobbs, who owns a farm in rural northwestern New Jersey, flirted briefly this year with a run for governor. He later ripped Republican nominee Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, over immigration enforcement and gave the independent candidate air time on CNN.
His attacks on Christie could complicate his entry into Republican politics, since Christie won.
Dobbs was once a Republican but is now an independent. He did not return requests for comment Wednesday. Dilenschneider said that Dobbs was in Florida and that no decision on his future was expected for at least two weeks.
On Monday, Dobbs said on former Sen. Fred Thompson’s radio program that he had been urged to run for president and would talk to some people about it. On Wednesday, Dilenschneider backed off that idea, telling The New York Times a presidential run was a “long way off.”
The spokesman said there would have to be an “intermediary step,” such as the seat held by Menendez.
Menendez downplayed any concern about the possible challenge.
“I’m concentrated on jobs, not Dobbs,” Menendez said after visiting a food bank in Hillside on Wednesday.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh also downplayed a potential Dobbs candidacy, saying, “2012 is not on our radar screen right now. There are 36 Senate seats up in 2010, and that is where the NRSC’s sole focus is right now.”
Dobbs, 64, was a CNN original who was one of the TV business’ leading financial journalists before taking on other topics post-9/11, and increasingly offering his own opinion. He caused controversy when he pressed President Barack Obama to prove he was born in the United States even after his own network’s reporting debunked the question.
Latino groups charged that Dobbs’ emphasis on illegal immigration promoted an atmosphere of intolerance.
His departure from the cable station prompted a victory lap by advocacy groups that had sought his ouster for outspokenness, particularly on illegal immigration.
An American flag graphic fluttered behind Dobbs’ face during his CNN resignation announcement, and on his radio show the next day, he took calls from listeners who urged him run for office. The former Republican makes political independence a central theme of his radio show.
Menendez, from a heavily Democratic area of New Jersey that is home to a large Latino population, has sponsored bills protecting citizens and permanent residents from unlawful detention and deportation and supports allowing illegal immigrants to buy health insurance from exchanges with their own money.
Public polls hint at New Jerseyans’ views on immigration issues.
A Monmouth Polling Institute survey in March found that New Jerseyans oppose giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. And they even more strongly oppose extending in-state college tuition rates to them.
In a Quinnipiac University poll in December 2007, two-thirds of New Jersey voters surveyed said undocumented residents hurt the country more than they help it.
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