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Commentary: The Torch still flickers

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst   |   Oct. 1, 2002 at 1:57 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- With exactly the same lack of grace and class that marked his tenure in the United States Senate, Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., attempted Monday to abdicate his party's nomination for re-election to the world's greatest deliberative body.

In remarks that could at best be called self-serving, Torricelli once again denied having committed any of the acts that have brought him to this point. He told a press conference in Trenton, "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate." Except that, if his party's control of the Senate rests on his seat alone, he already is.

This once-safe seat has become an almost-certain loss for the Democrats because of what Torricelli himself did. Torricelli was "severely admonished" by his Senate colleagues for having taken lavish gifts from a political supporter now in prison and was unable to convince New Jersey voters he was not guilty of corrupt acts.

Last week a federal judge unsealed a memo from federal prosecutors saying "credible" allegations existed that the senator had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in illegal cash and gifts from businessman David Chang. After that particular revelation, support for Torricelli collapsed completely.

In defeat Torricelli was as dishonest as many New Jersey voters seem to believe he has been in the conduct of his public affairs. He did nothing wrong, he seemed to say, but, as it had become clear he could not hold the seat for his party he was, nobly, bowing out to give them time to save the seat.

When you strip away all the folderol and legal mumbo-jumbo, Torricelli and his fellow Democrats are trying to keep control of the Senate dishonestly.

New Jersey law is quite clear on the subject. Candidates cannot be replaced on the ballot less than 51 days before an election. Period.

This is one prior exception to that law from the early '80s but in that case, an incumbent member of the New Jersey state Senate died after the deadline had passed and prior to Election Day. As the Democrats so ably demonstrated in Missouri in 2000, being dead no longer disqualifies a candidate for U.S. Senate from winning a race.

Torricelli and his fellow Democrats are trying, through a campaign of political persuasion just beginning, to convince the public and the legal community that there should be a new "I knew I was going to lose the election so I am quitting" exemption to this deadline.

It is this kind of creeping Clintonism that has cost the Democrats and the country dearly in the last 10 years.

The Clinton administration, it should be recalled, survived based on a tortured definition of the word "is." Another scandal was avoided by Al Gore's repeated contention that there was "no controlling legal authority" preventing him from soliciting soft money contributions from political donors inside federal buildings -- contravening existing interpretations of the law.

Now the Democrats claim Torricelli's decision to drop out of the race entitles them to choose a new nominee even though state law does not permit them to. They want, for purely political purposes, to be given a fresh start.

Politically this is a flawed strategy. Torricelli remains a senator. He will continue to cast votes. He cannot, as he admitted Monday he had become, avoid being the issue in the campaign simply by suspending his re-election effort. Any Democrat chosen to replace him will have Torricelli around his neck like an albatross.

For this reason it is more than likely that Torricelli will, within the next 10 days, resign his seat in the Senate.

A successful effort to uphold existing state law and block a new name from being put on the ballot would be enough of a reason. After the coverage had convinced the voters that the Democrats were in fact entitled to make such a replacement, Torricelli's resignation would allow Democrat Gov. Jim McGreevey to declare a vacancy and to appoint an interim senator, removing Torricelli from the picture completely.

McGreevey could then declare the need for a special election and, in effect, wipe out the November contest. In my second-grade kickball games, this was called a "do over" and, while appropriate for the elementary school playground, it is a wholly dishonest way to run a race for United States Senate. The Democrats should place the country and the rule of law above partisan interests and admit defeat.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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