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Democrats Press McGreevey to Quit

Some in N.J. Back Corzine for Governor

By Helen Dewar and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page A02

Embattled New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey (D) is under increasing pressure from state Democratic power brokers to leave office immediately and clear the way for Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) to run this fall to succeed him.

But McGreevey, who last week admitted to an extramarital affair with a man and said he would leave office Nov. 15, gave no sign that he is ready to quit before the Sept. 3 deadline for scheduling a special election. This would put state Senate President Richard J. Codey (D) in line to serve out the remaining year of McGreevey's term, which apparently satisfies some but by no means all New Jersey Democrats.

New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey (D), right, who is preparing to hand over his administration to an acting governor, leaves a meeting in Trenton. (Brian Branch Price -- AP)

An Aug. 18 article incorrectly identified a Republican who ran for a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey and incorrectly described the details of his campaign. The candidate was Douglas Forrester, not John Forrester, and he lost to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) in 2002, not to Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D) in 2000.

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The advantage, some Democrats say, is that by staying in office until November, McGreevey ensures he is succeeded by a Democrat. But other Democrats say that if Corzine would agree to run in a special election, the result would be the same and the party quickly would be done with McGreevey and all the scandal headlines.

Instead of backing off, McGreevey wrote a newspaper opinion piece defending his record and his plans for a November departure from office. After meeting with McGreevey, Codey described him as "resolved to stay until Nov. 15."

McGreevey's disclosure last Thursday of his homosexual orientation first stunned the state and then set off a frenzied scramble for advantage within both parties. Republicans jumped into the fray with calls for the governor's immediate resignation. By the weekend, many Democrats were doing the same.

Corzine, clearly the consensus choice of New Jersey Democrats to succeed McGreevey, returned to the state yesterday but said nothing about his plans, adding to the sense of confusion and suspense.

Friends and political associates said Corzine is torn between home-state pressures to run for governor (reinforced by his ambitions for the office) and his reluctance to walk away from his job as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he is leading the fight to return the Senate to Democratic control. "It's wrenching for him," a Senate Democratic aide said.

Corzine, 57, who came to the Senate four years ago after having spent $60 million of his considerable fortune from Wall Street, was chosen last year to head the Democrats' comeback effort and has done well at the job -- in fundraising and in candidate recruitment -- other Democrats say. Senate Democrats, once reconciled to losing seats, now believe they have a shot at winning back the Senate, where Republicans have a two-vote majority.

Even though much of his work has already been done, party sources said both Senate Democratic leaders and key figures in the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry want Corzine to stay where he is.

But Corzine has made no secret of his desire to become New Jersey's governor, and it may be hard for him to resist the pressure that is building from home-state Democrats. Associates say Corzine has not tried to nudge McGreevey out of office but believe the senator is likely to run if there is a special election, which would occur in conjunction with the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Among those supporting an early retirement by McGreevey is Rep. Robert Menendez (D), considered a likely choice to replace Corzine in the Senate if he moves to the governorship. Others include McGreevey's political mentor John Lynch, a former state Senate president, and George E. Norcross III, whose business interests are largely dependent on political ties. Another, state Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny, told the Jersey Journal he believed it is "in the interest of the Democratic Party" that McGreevey leave office in time for a special election and said he will be urging support for Corzine in Hudson, his home county.

Middlesex County Democrats began circulating a petition urging McGreevey to step down immediately, saying a special election would help the state "recover from the shock of the revelations" McGreevey made last week.

But others cautioned against forcing a special election, saying it short-circuits the democratic system. "Literally a handful of party bosses will meet in a room and decide who the next candidate will be," said state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Joseph F. Vitale (D), who holds McGreevey's former Senate seat. "There will be a small window for the candidates to reach out to the voters."

In an opinion article in Tuesday's USA Today, McGreevey defended his decision to wait until Nov. 15 to resign, saying it will provide for a more orderly transition, especially in light of the current terrorism alerts. The New Jersey state constitution provides for an orderly election process, and "we should allow that process to work" he wrote.

Meanwhile, GOP demands for an immediate resignation continued. Former governor Christine Todd Whitman, McGreevey's predecessor, said he should step down "right now" and added that "the minute you announce that you're going to resign you're a lame duck, and it becomes increasingly impossible to get anything done."

According to the Associated Press, Whitman did not expressly rule out running in a special election, saying that "it really depends on who's running on the other side."

Former governor Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, has also been mentioned as a top choice for Republicans, but a GOP official said he has indicated he will not run. John Forrester, a multimillionaire who lost to Corzine four years ago, has indicated willingness to self-finance a special election campaign and is launching a media blitz to push McGreevey to leave now. Other possibilities include U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.

Garcia reported from New York.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company