New Jersey Race Reveals Politics of Mud

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In almost every campaign there comes a moment feared by politicians: the Unexpected Event.

In the last weeks of a campaign, some past questionable act is uncovered by hungry investigative reporters, or maybe a former employee shows up in front of the cameras to talk about the slave-driver personality of the candidate.

So as he walks toward the cameras on a recent day, Democratic Rep. Robert Torricelli, running against Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer for New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's seat, is faced with such an event.

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The congressman knows the reporters standing in the chrysanthemums are not interested in his stand on pension reform. They are there to ask him about Harvard Jee, a former law client, who is wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly stealing $34 million from some banks and fleeing to South Korea.

Such events are not unusual in politics. In 1992, then Gov. Bill Clinton suddenly was defending himself against charges he sexually harassed an Arkansas state employee. Last week, the campaign of Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, was coping with the fallout from an advertisement that used computer-altered photos.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says such uppercuts are part of life in the political arena.

"You have to be able to take a punch in politics. This separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls," he says.

Too close to call

The Jee event is part of a too-close to call race, considered the most expensive in the nation. It has garnered international attention for the amount of mud hitting the airwaves. It is one of a handful of critical races if the Republicans are to retain control of the Senate. And, the Republican hierarchy believes the GOP has a good chance to win, so it is putting a significant amount of money into the race.

New Jersey political analyst Steve Salmore of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute says the main reason for the food fight is the difficulty of establishing state-wide voter recognition.

In fact, with only 15 days left until election day, polls show that only 25 percent of the voters know either of the candidates. According to a recent survey by the Asbury Park Press and a local radio station, Torricelli narrowly leads Zimmer, 38 percent to 32 percent with 24 percent undecided.

"It's easier to raise an opponent's negatives," Mr. Salmore says.

Both candidates are trying hard on this score. Zimmer has recently released ads that appear to show a news broadcast. The announcer proclaims, "This item's just in about Bob Torricelli." The screen flashes the headline from a newspaper raising the Jee issue or some other personal matter.

The Torricelli campaign shows some less than flattering photos of Zimmer while an announcer tells the viewers that Zimmer is trying to cut Medicare, a sensitive issue in the state.

At campaign appearances, Torricelli often brings up the name of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, trying to tie Zimmer to the Republican representative from Georgia whom many see as responsible for the costly and unpopular federal government shutdowns last winter.

Despite the efforts by the candidates to tarnish each other's image, they don't differ that much on the issues. "I would suggest both are middle of the road," says Neil Upmeyer, president of the nonpartisan Center for Analysis of Public Issues in Princeton.

Feeding campaign coffers

With an $8 million war chest, Torricelli had hoped to outspend Zimmer who had about $5 million. The Republican National Committee, however - sensing the seat might be obtainable - has provided enough money for two weeks worth of paid advertisements.

With that dollop, says Salmore, "Zimmer's not far behind Torricelli in fund-raising."

Some of the nation's best known Republicans are helping in that effort. Recently, Sen. Trent Lott, (R) of Mississippi, showed up at a Zimmer fund-raiser. "He charged up the crowd," says Christopher Giancarlo, a New York lawyer who helped organize the event.

The fund-raising is essential because the candidates have to advertise on expensive New York and Philadelphia airwaves in order to garner attention.

"With no stepping stone offices in New Jersey and a powerful governor [Republican Christine Todd Whitman], there is no way to get visibility," observes Cliff Zukin, a professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute.

Torricelli, however, is starting to get the wrong kind of visibility. The Jee connection surfaced on Oct. 2, when the Bergen Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper, raised questions about Torricelli's ties to the Korean businessman.

It seems after Jee fled the US to the Republic of South Korea, Torricelli was asked to become the financial guardian of Jee's 15-year-old daughter.

The Record appears to have found contradictions in the congressman's account. His opponent wants to prolong Torricelli's agony for as long as he can.

Last week, for example, in Trenton, Andrew Napolitano, a retired judge and Zimmer friend, asked that the Justice Department look into whether Torricelli could be accused of harboring a fugitive.

"So the question the US Attorney must ascertain is what Congressman Torricelli knew, when he knew it, and what he told the FBI about it," says Mr. Napolitano, now a partner in a law firm.

Only a few hours later Torricelli was holding a short meeting with Labor Secretary Robert Reich and about 20 New Jersey voters.

As Mr. Reich listened to the voters' pension problems, reporters continued to stream inside the split-level house where the meeting was being held. Afterward, the news reporters had no questions for the Labor secretary.

Instead, a wolf pack of reporters converged on Torricelli, who maintained he was only trying to help a young girl abandoned by her parents.

Asked how he felt about the call for a US investigation of him, Torricelli replied, "At this point, I'd be surprised at almost nothing."

But will those surprises translate into votes against Torricelli?

Answers Sabato, "If the tides are with you, it probably won't matter, but if they are against you, they become a millstone around your neck."

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