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New Jersey Race Reveals Politics of Mud

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1996


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

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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.

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.