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He's Fit, 'Happy' and a Hit in N.J.

Senate: As Lautenberg is out drumming up votes, his GOP opponent is left in the costly position of having to refocus his campaign in the homestretch.

October 07, 2002|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNION CITY, N.J. — Frank R. Lautenberg, at 78 the Democrats' brand-new Senate candidate from New Jersey, tackled the age question head-on Sunday, salsa-dancing his way through the annual Hispanic State Parade in heavily Latino--and heavily Democratic--Union City.

In taking over the candidacy from incumbent Sen. Robert Torricelli last week, Lautenberg already had removed Republican challenger Douglas R. Forrester's most potent issue: Torricelli's ethics.

Forrester, 49, has responded to the late-inning switch by trying to paint his new opponent as an old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberal. Refocusing will be expensive for Forrester, who already had produced broadcast commercials and campaign literature hammering away at Torricelli's character.

Torricelli bowed out of the race when it became clear that Forrester was starting to pull away by attacking the Democrat for, among other things, accepting expensive gifts from a commodities trader now in jail for campaign-finance violations dating to Torricelli's 1996 Senate race. In quitting the campaign, Torricelli said he didn't want to be responsible for losing the Senate--which the Democrats now control by a one-vote margin.

Lawyers for Forrester and the Republicans are pursuing a legal effort to keep Lautenberg's name off the ballot. They lost the first round last week, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Democrats' candidate switch was legal. The GOP is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the matter, contending the late change is unfair.

"Why is it unfair when he's the one who wanted Torricelli out of the race?" asked Lloyd Nixon, a resident of neighboring West New York, N.J., who was watching Sunday's parade. "I know why Forrester's mad. How can you jump from a 14-point lead to minus 4 in one day? It's like driving a race car and you ran out of gas."

Nixon was referring to new polls showing that Lautenberg--who had served 18 years in the Senate before retiring in 2000--had instantaneously reversed the double-digit lead that Forrester had built up against Torricelli.

The main reason Lautenberg decided not to run for a fourth term was that he hated fund-raising, he said back when he made his retirement announcement in early 1999. Despite a huge personal fortune amassed as founder of the computer firm ADP, Lautenberg had said, campaigning inside the New York media orbit was so expensive that he would have to spend half of every day for 18 months on fund-raising.

Lautenberg's loathing for passing the hat underlines the contrasts between him and Torricelli--a dynamo who had quarterbacked the Democrats' overall fund-raising efforts in both the House and the Senate before his personal campaign-finance problems ended his career.

In fact, the well-known personal antipathy between Lautenberg and Torricelli is making it hard for the Republicans to lump them together in negative ads.

"The Lautenberg-Torricelli ticket, they're calling it, but these are two guys who never liked each other, and they're on the record that way for years," said Joel Benenson, a New York-based pollster and political consultant who worked for the Torricelli campaign.

Forrester's toughest problem now is name recognition--both his and Lautenberg's, Benenson said.

"New Jersey voters know Lautenberg. They've pulled the lever for him three times," Benenson said. "But almost two-thirds of voters just seven days ago said they didn't know enough about" Forrester, he added, citing his firm's polling for Torricelli.

If familiarity will be a big advantage for Lautenberg, the difficulties of throwing a campaign together on the fly will be a problem. The Democrats have had to scrap bales of signs and handouts for Torricelli and scramble for material with Lautenberg's name.

As late as Friday, press secretary Juliet Johnson's office phone answered: "Torricelli headquarters," while her cell phone had been updated to: "Lautenberg for Senate."

The candidate himself dismissed such problems as trivial.

"I didn't serve 18 years in the Senate not knowing what I was getting into," Lautenberg said Sunday during a pause in the parade. He called on Forrester, who did not attend the parade, to drop his legal challenge and debate the issues.

Lautenberg marched two miles in shirt-sleeves and with his tie tugged loose at his neck, crisscrossing the street to greet onlookers in Spanish that was rusty but warmly received.

"Arriba los Hispanos!" Lautenberg said repeatedly. "Viva Colombia! Viva Cuba!" he said, nodding to two of the city's most populous ethnic groups.

Jenny Munoz gave the candidate a kiss during one of his detours to the side of the street.

"I love him because he's happy all the time, like me," she said in Spanish. She added in English that she had been born in Bremerhaven, Germany, and come to the U.S. in 1962 by way of Cuba, where she met her late husband.

"I worked for Democrats ever since I could vote," Munoz said.

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