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Torricelli Drops Reelection Bid, Clouding Battle for Senate

Politics: Hurt by ethics issue, N.J. Democrat alters the picture on upper house control, sets off a legal battle over replacing him.

October 01, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Embattled Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) withdrew from his race for reelection Monday, scrambling the national battle for control of the Senate and inciting a legal confrontation over whether New Jersey Democrats can place a new candidate on the ballot.

Damaged by revelations about expensive gifts he had accepted from businessman David Chang, Torricelli was trailing in recent polls to Republican nominee Doug Forrester, manager of a pharmaceutical benefits management firm.

National Democrats considered Torricelli, who was completing his first Senate term after 14 years in the House, their most endangered incumbent.

His decision to step aside could give Democrats, who have gained increasing support in New Jersey, an improved chance of holding the state's seat--and their razor-slim 50-49 Senate majority--if they can resolve the swirl of political and legal questions about replacing him on the ballot.

"I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate," Torricelli declared in a lengthy and emotional speech in Trenton, N.J. "I will not allow it to happen."

His voice cracking, his words teetering at times between defiance and self-congratulation, Torricelli presented an extended list of his achievements, but acknowledged that the questions about his ethics had eclipsed all other campaign issues.

"I cannot talk about war and peace or economic opportunity or the environment or the sanctity of our Constitution.... I can't be heard," he said. "My voice is not so important that it cannot be substituted."

But exactly how that substitution could occur is shrouded in confusion and controversy.

Though the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, with 110 members, has the formal authority to name a successor, in practice party insiders said the decision would be made by top party officials and New Jersey's Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey within 48 hours.

The state Democratic Party plans to file suits today in state and federal courts to have that new nominee replace Torricelli on the New Jersey ballot, said Rich McGrath, the party's communication director.

But Republicans instantly signaled they would fight in court any effort to place a new candidate before the voters. Alex Vogel, general counsel of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said New Jersey law barred the parties from replacing their candidates less than 51 days before the election--which as of today is 35 days away.

"If there were to be exceptions to the [state] law, it is highly unlikely that fear of losing an election would be one of them," said Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), head of the NRSC.

Likewise, Forrester said any effort to put a new candidate on the ballot would "disregard the clear letter of the law."

Speculation on the replacements Democrats would turn to focused on four names. Several sources said the top choice was former Sen. Bill Bradley, who decided against seeking reelection in 1996, creating the vacancy that Torricelli filled. As of Monday night, party officials had not reached Bradley, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 and lost to Al Gore. He has been working as an investment banker.

But most Democrats generally consider him unlikely to enter the race.

The other likely possibilities, one party strategist said, were former Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a frequent Torricelli antagonist who stepped down in 2000 after three terms, and Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. and Robert Menendez.

Torricelli's announcement came just two days after the release of a poll that showed him trailing Forrester, 47% to 34%.

The senator's aides had questioned the survey's accuracy, but one senior Democratic official said the campaign's private polling also showed a precipitous decline over last weekend.

The deterioration followed the release of a previously undisclosed Justice Department memo on Torricelli's relationship with Chang, who is serving a federal prison sentence for making illegal campaign contributions to the senator's 1996 campaign.

After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee in July "severely admonished" Torricelli for accepting a succession of personal gifts from Chang, including an expensive television and CD player, while trying to help the businessman receive repayment of a debt from North Korea.

"The committee is troubled by incongruities, inconsistencies, and conflicts, particularly concerning actions taken by you which were or could have been of potential benefit to Mr. Chang," the committee wrote Torricelli.

The panel's finding hurt Torricelli politically, and his situation suffered again last week when a federal court ordered the release of the memo from Justice Department prosecutors on the case.

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