(CNN) -- New Jersey voters head to the polls on Wednesday in a special U.S. Senate election that's become a proxy fight over the federal government shutdown and the bitter partisan battle in the nation's capital over the rollout of the national health care law.
Wednesday's election between two-term Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Republican nominee Steve Lonegan will also result in a slight shift in the current balance of power in the Senate.
Booker, the front runner throughout the short campaign to replace the late Frank Lautenberg, held double-digit leads over Lonegan, a former mayor, in three polls of likely voters released in the 48 hours prior to what's expected to be a lower voter turnout election.
The contest is the first federal election since the start of the shutdown on October 1, and that fiscal fight and the battle over extending the nation's debt limit, along with back and forth over Obamacare, have become big issues on the Garden State campaign trail.
Booker, who for weeks has characterized Lonegan as a far-right, tea party conservative, is framing the race partially as a national referendum.
"New Jerseyans have a rare opportunity. Nobody else in the nation has this," Booker told CNN's Jason Carroll on Monday. "The nation will be watching because New Jersey will be the one election on a federal level to say whether we endorse the shutdown with the person who says he wants to continue it, my opponent, or whether we want to go a different way. Sending somebody down there who has built a career on building bridges and bringing people together."
Lonegan agrees that the race has partially become a national referendum.
"The whole nation is watching our state vote," Lonegan said Monday on the campaign trail. "It's not just an election for U.S. senator."
In the second of their two debates, Lonegan, who's criticized Booker for what the Republican describes as his celebrity status, said that the nationally recognized Booker is a "Hollywood stand-in" for President Barack Obama.
Lonegan also said delaying implementation of the president's health care law remains "absolutely essential," adding that "I am proud Republicans are finally standing up to this tyrant."
On the eve of the special election, Booker led Lonegan 54%-40% among likely voters in a Quinnipiac University poll. In two surveys released Monday, Booker held a 10 point, 52%-42%, advantage in a Monmouth University poll, and a 22-point, 58%-36%, lead in a Rutgers-Eagleton survey.
"It's a New Jersey habit electing Democrats to the Senate. The liberal mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, holds onto the double-digit lead over the conservative former mayor of Bogota, Steve Lonegan, that we measured when we first looked at likely voters," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Low turnout's expected for a contest that's being held on a Wednesday and that comes less than three weeks before the state holds a gubernatorial election.
Less than two-thirds of registered voters know that the Senate election is happening, and only a third can name both candidates in the Senate election without prompting, according to Fairleigh Dickinson University data.
"The timing of the election, combined with everything going on in Washington right now, has really diverted attention from the Senate race," said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "That tells us that we're not going to see huge crowds at the polls on Wednesday."
To help bring Democrats to the polls, Booker's campaign released a video message Monday from Obama, who urged New Jersey voters to turn out for the Democratic candidate.
"Cory Booker has spent his entire life bringing people with different perspectives together, regardless of party, to take on tough challenges," said the President, in the video.
And Saturday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a favorite among grassroots conservatives, campaigned with Lonegan at a high profile event organized by a national tea party group.
The winner of Wednesday's special election will serve out the final year of Lautenberg's term. The Democrat died in June.
Soon after Lautenberg's death, GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who's up for re-election in November, named fellow Republican and state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to temporarily fill the Senate seat.
A victory in the October 16 contest would make Booker the first African-American elected to the Senate since Barack Obama in Illinois in 2004.
That move reduced the Democratic Party's control of the Senate to 54-46. A likely Booker victory would increase the Democrats' majority to 55-45.
While there are two major candidates in the race, it's Booker, considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, who is getting more attention.
He made national headlines for rescuing a neighbor from a fire and for helping his city dig out from a major snowstorm. But his status has also opened him to attacks by his critics that he spends far too much time outside of Newark, and that he hasn't done enough to stem the city's rising murder rate.
Booker can boast of having nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers. But a recent Twitter exchange with a stripper did briefly make headlines.
And questions about Booker's sexuality arose after he told the Washington Post earlier this year that he didn't care if supporters thought he was gay.
"It's something that's almost fatiguing at this point," Booker told CNN's Carroll. "At the end of the day, I just believe we should be electing people on the content of their character, on the quality of their ideals, their dedication to their cause, not on who they're dating."
CNN's Ashley Killough and Dana Garrett contributed to this report.