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Democrats Pick Lautenberg to Replace Torricelli

Politics: N.J. party officials choose an ex-senator for Senate race. State's top court will decide whether the action is legal.

October 02, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — New Jersey Democrats chose former Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg as their Senate candidate Tuesday, replacing Sen. Robert Torricelli, as the prospect arose of an extended court battle that could leave control of the U.S. Senate entangled in a legal morass reminiscent of the 2000 presidential race.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments today on whether Democrats can replace Torricelli, who abruptly withdrew from the race Monday, on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Republicans quickly indicated that if the New Jersey court accepts Democratic arguments that a replacement would not violate state law, they would challenge the decision in federal court.

"If they are somehow able to win in the New Jersey Supreme Court, there will be federal avenues open to the New Jersey state Republican Party," said Alex Vogel, general counsel for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

That signal from the GOP raised the prospect that the New Jersey Senate race could become enmeshed in the same sort of extended litigation that delayed for weeks the declaration of a winner in Florida in the 2000 presidential race.

"We could well see a protracted endgame like we had in 2000 in Florida, with control of the Senate at stake," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Torricelli withdrew from the race after his support, as measured in polls, plummeted following the disclosure of new details about his relationship with David Chang, a local businessman who says he provided about $150,000 in gifts and cash to the senator. The Republican nominee, businessman Doug Forrester, has made Torricelli's ethics the centerpiece of his campaign.

State Democratic leaders huddled Tuesday to find a new candidate, even without knowing whether they could place his or her name on the ballot, and Lautenberg emerged as the choice after a day filled with mixed signals and confusion. "This was the best possible decision arrived at in the most awkward possible way," said one top Democratic operative.

As the party was considering candidates, two of the top prospects withdrew their names almost immediately. Former Sen. Bill Bradley, who, in open disillusionment with the political process, declined to run for reelection in 1996, told Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) that he wasn't interested, according to Democratic sources. Rep. Robert Menendez, a Cuban American who represents a district in Newark and Jersey City, also took himself out of the running, saying he wanted to remain in the House.

That left two prominent names: Lautenberg and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., who was first elected to Congress from central New Jersey in 1988. Neither appeared a perfect choice.

Lautenberg, who did not seek reelection in 2000, was by far better known than Pallone. But several factors seemed to initially steer Democrats away from him.

Senior Democrats said Lautenberg, though personally wealthy, had told the party that he would be unable to commit significant amounts of his own money to the race.

Another complicating factor was the longtime feud between Lautenberg and Torricelli. Some party insiders said they feared that Torricelli would not transfer his remaining campaign funds--which Democrats consider key to any competitive race--to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee if Lautenberg was chosen. Torricelli is believed to have more than $5 million in his campaign war chest.

Lautenberg's age--78--also raised concerns. That pointed toward a decision to select Pallone, despite some ambivalence among party insiders. Pallone has a moderate-to-liberal voting record, in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but some party insiders believe that he lacks the presence and charisma of a top-tier candidate.

Still, one senior Democrat said that Gov. James E. McGreevey decided to offer Pallone the spot, and senior Democrats in Washington signed off on the decision--until Pallone's wife objected. "He was it; the governor wanted it; it was vetted and approved [in Washington]. At the last minute, for family reasons, he pulled out," said the senior Democratic operative.

At that point, the Democrats moved back toward Lautenberg. The operative said negotiations would continue in the next few days, both about how much money Lautenberg would contribute and whether Torricelli would make his campaign funds available to the party to help fund the race.

These political maneuvers went on amid enormous uncertainty about whether Democrats could place any new candidate's name on the November ballot.

Republicans say that New Jersey state law flatly prohibits the replacement of any candidate's name on a ballot within 51 days of the election. "We don't think there is the authority for putting anyone on the ballot outside of this 51-day window," said Vogel. There are 34 days from today until election day.

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