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Talking Points

Does Torricelli Departure Help or Hurt Democrats?

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 1, 2002; 2:49 PM

In his stunning speech yesterday, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) portrayed himself as a victim of the politics of personal destruction, absolved himself from major ethical lapses and portrayed his 11th hour withdrawal from the Senate race as an act of benevolence for his beloved Democratic party.

But it became clearer than ever today that Torricelli — a master fundraiser and stirring orator who has contributed as much as anyone in recent years to his party's success — may in fact have ruined Democrats' chances to keep a hold on their majority in the Senate. While a Torricelli victory against GOP candidate Douglas Forrester was becoming less certain by the day as media and voter backlash against the senator mounted, his departure from the race could assure a Republican victory if the state's Supreme Court refuses to allow a replacement candidate this close to the election.

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Both state parties were frantically maneuvering this afternoon in preparation for a 10 a.m. Wednesday hearing before the state Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case on an expedited schedule at the request of Democrats. Even if Democrats are allowed to replace Torricelli on the ballot, they face another problem: Getting another viable candidate in the race. Former senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley has told party leaders he's not interested. And today, the leading potential candidate to replace Torricelli, Rep. Robert Menendez, the fourth-ranking Democrat in House leadership, took himself out of the running, saying he wants to remain in the House and continue to help Democrats fight for a majority.

Republicans say the law is clear-cut and does not make exceptions for a candidate who simply decides to drop out of a race after the deadline. Today, GOP officials publicly doubted Torricelli's high-mindedness, suggesting the only reason he dropped out was because new polls had him down by as much as 13 percentage points and demanded that his name remain on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Privately, Democrats were saying today that both former Sen. Frank Lautenberg and seven-term Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. were interested in taking over for Torricelli and had agreed to do so if asked. There are potential strengths and weakness with both. Lautenberg, who decided not to seek re-election in 2000, is well known and popular among Democrats. But Lautenberg and Torricelli strongly dislike each other, and it was unclear whether the Torricelli camp would fight turning over the seat to his old nemesis. Pallone, on the other hand, has good relationships with national and state party leaders, but may lack the statewide name recognition to make him a viable candidate this close to the election.

State Democratic party officials plan to meet tomorrow night to decide on a replacement candidate.

Nonetheless, Democrats were optimistic about their chances before the court and upbeat about their opportunity to revive their fortunes in a race that had once seemed all but assured.

"Frankly Mr. Forrester lacks the experience, skills and rationale for a candidacy," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Jim Jordan today. "He has had one sole message during this campaign, and it is that 'I'm not Bob Torricelli.' And now he doesn't have that."

Torricelli had been dogged for months by allegations that he improperly accepted expensive gifts from a campaign contributor named David Chang. The Senate ethics committee strongly admonished him this summer.

"In a strange irony of life, control of the Democratic majority of the United States Senate is now at issue and I am a part of that issue," Torricelli said yesterday. "It will not only be decided in New Jersey but it most certainly will in part be decided in New Jersey. I could not stand the pain if any failing on my part were to damage the things and the people that I have fought for all of my life."

Moments later, he added: "My voice is not so important that it can not be substituted. If I can not be heard then someone else must be heard. I have asked attorneys to file with the Supreme Court of the United States motions to have my name removed from the General Election ballot for the United States Senate. It is the most painful thing that I've ever done in my life."

But he won't be the only one feeling pain if the court decides to reject the Democratic party's request to allow another candidate to fill in for Torricelli. New Jersey law prohibits a party from replacing a statewide nominee on the ballot within 51 days before the election. Only 35 days remain as of today. And the GOP is making it clear that its not going to make it easy for Democrats to replace an ethically challenged candidate with tanking poll numbers with a little more than a month from Election Day.

"What's their argument going to be, that they're just now finding out that Sen. Torricelli has ethical problems?" said Jeanette Hoffman, communications director of the state GOP. "There's really nothing new in this other than new polls showing that Sen. Torricelli is not going to win."

But Democrats said this afternoon that they would make the case before the court that, essentially, the state’s election law clearly intends to give voters options at the ballot box and that the importance of doing so supercedes any "administrative or procedural" electoral laws that would hinder that right.

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