Torricelli pullout: wrong year for ethics baggage

As incumbent Senator withdraws, New Jersey Democrats seek a replacement.

For months, Americans have watched a parade of ethically challenged businessmen – but there wasn't much they could do about it. Now, they're turning to an area where they can have a say: politics.

One of the first casualties of the backlash is Sen. Robert Torricelli, the New Jersey Democrat who dropped out of the Senate race Monday when it became clear his ethical mistakes – of accepting gifts from a campaign contributor – would cost him the election. "This is a good indication of this shift: Even in New Jersey, which has been tolerant of corruption in the past, there are limits," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia commentator.

While Torricelli came to his own decision, underlying that was evidence in polls that voters were deserting him. His departure has important ramifications: The seat appears critical for Democrats as they fight to retain control of the Senate. In fact, Torricelli said the reason he left the race was to prevent his Republican challenger, businessman Douglas Forrester, from winning. "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the US Senate," said Torricelli.

The Democratic party bosses hope to field another candidate, perhaps as early as today. Among those mentioned are former Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Reps. Robert Menendez and Frank Pallone Jr.. Exactly how they would get onto the ticket, however, is unclear, since the the mandated time to enact a ballot change passed two weeks ago.

On Monday, Torricelli and Gov. James McGreevey said their lawyers would go to court to ask that the ballot be changed. Republicans prom-ised a fight. "I think we'll be spending the week in court," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the Cook Report.

The court rulings will be critical for Democrats, who only a few weeks ago thought Torricelli could win the race. But last week, Mr. Forrester forced the release of a damaging Justice Department analysis of Torricelli's alleged ethical lapses.

Torricelli was accused of accepting money and gifts from a donor, David Chang, in return for helping him resolve a business problem in North and South Korea. Mr. Chang told investigators he gave the senator an $8,100 Rolex watch and Italian suits. The Senate ethics committee strongly chastised Torricelli, and he apologized.

However, his political woes continued as a local television station ran a commercial-free special focusing on the investigation. By last weekend, the senator found himself down by double digits in the polls.

If Democrats get a new candidate on the ballot, they may still have a chance. "Anyone ... free of Torricelli's baggage has to be considered a strong, viable candidate even at this late date," says Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll. Mr. Richards says the race remains up for grabs because Forrester has spent most of his time attacking Torricelli's ethics. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 70 percent of those polled didn't know enough about Forrester to make a decision about him.

"New Jersey is a Democrat-trending state and ... another Democrat has a chance," he says. It is also a difficult and expensive state in which to get out a political message in a short time. Most political advertising has to be run on Philadelphia or New York television stations – some of the country's most expensive media markets.

A former senator, such as Mr. Lautenberg, would be a formidable opponent since he's already known around the state. "Lautenberg loved being a US Senator, and I think he would find running against Forrester pretty attractive," says Cliff Zukin, a political analyst at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute.

Lautenberg left politics when it appeared former Gov. Christie Whitman would run against him. "It would have been expensive and he thought he might lose," says Mr. Zukin. Mrs. Whitman never ran. Instead, former investment banker Jon Corzine defeated former Rep. Bob Franks.

Democrats will certainly search for a candidate without ethical problems. In recent years, many of the state's leading politicians left office because of indiscretions. Former acting governor Donald DiFrancesco was implicated in questionable land deals. At least two mayors of Camden were convicted of corruption charges. "Political scandal and corruption in New Jersey is nothing new," says Transparency International, a corruption watch-dog group.

One reason, says Zukin, is that the state vests a lot of power with county officials, who can give contracts without competing bids and make important hiring decisions. "We are still sort of a machine state," he says. The Democratic machine will have to be particularly energetic if the party cannot change the ballot, which was already mailed to members of the military and people living overseas. Some suggest the Democrats might have to resort to a write-in campaign. This worked in the District of Columbia recently. However, Ms. Duffy says it would be hard to do statewide.

Instead, Mr. Sabato says, Democrats may have to keep Torricelli's name on the ballot but explain to the voters that they are actually voting for someone else; Torricelli would have to promise to resign if he's reelected. Two years ago, Missourians voted in Sen. Jean Carnahan by voting for her husband who was killed in a plane accident. "If the Democrats can pull this off," says Sabato, "Torricelli may actually be a hero, which is simply amazing."

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