Senate in balance as Torricelli quits race

By SHARON OTTERMAN and NICHOLAS M. HORROCK  |  Sept. 30, 2002 at 8:06 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Vowing he would not be responsible for the loss of Democratic control of the Senate, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., announced Monday that he will pull out of the race for re-election.

The senator's unexpected decision to quit sets up a historic battle for the control of the United States Senate, coming at a time when President George W. Bush is asking for Congress to give him the power to wage war against Iraq. It also may bring legal challenges to both New Jersey and national election laws.

Torricelli made the decision after support among voters plummeted in recent weeks over an ethics controversy. A Newark Star-Ledger poll Sunday showed him trailing his Republican opponent by 13 points, and pollsters have said he was all but certain to lose the November election. His loss would put the Democrats' one-seat Senate majority at risk.

"I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. There is just too much at issue," an emotional Torricelli said Monday evening at a news conference at the State Capitol Building in Trenton, N.J.

"I am not so important that I cannot be substituted. If I cannot be heard, then someone else must be heard."

Torricelli's surprise decision, which he said he made Sunday night, leaves many questions unanswered about the future of his seat and the upcoming Nov. 5 election.

Democratic sources in New Jersey and Washington said Monday evening that they were still debating the possibilities.

"Succinctly the Democratic State committee will petition the New Jersey Supreme Court for the ability to replace Robert Torricelli's name with another candidate," said New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey.

He said that candidate would be selected through consensus with the Democratic State Committee within the next 48 hours.

Former New Jersey Sens. Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg are among those being considered, as are New Jersey Democratic Reps. Robert Menendez and Frank Pallone Jr., both now in Congress.

Bradley, who dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000, seemed unlikely to want the seat after leaving it in 1996.

Torricelli and New Jersey Democrats also will face a complex legal battle. With the vote only 36 days away, the deadline to remove candidates from the New Jersey ballot has passed. Unprecedented intervention from the U.S. courts will be required to make the change, and Republican leaders have already said they will appeal any effort.

His opponent, GOP nominee Doug Forrester, told reporters at a news conference in Trenton that he "genuinely" wished Torricelli well, but he would oppose any legal maneuvers to take him off the ballot.

"The laws of the state of New Jersey do not contain a 'we-think-we're-going-to-lose-so-we-get-to-pick-someone-new' clause," he said in a statement. "The people of New Jersey have had enough of playing politics with the fundamental tenets of democracy."

Bill Baroni, a lawyer for the Forrester campaign, told a news conference in New Jersey that county clerks already had begun to mail out ballots with Torricelli's name to absentee voters, many of whom are serving in the armed forces.

"This is an unheard-of attempt to change the election law," he said, "and we intend to fight it."

Frank Askin, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Rutgers University, said that ballots with Torricelli's name on them already have been printed. Other legal experts said that absentee balloting has already begun.

"I think it may be too late to act," Askin said. "The only option may be for the Democrats to agree on a high-profile write-in candidate that will already be known to voters. It's a mess."

Torricelli, 51, was "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee on July 30 for accepting improper gifts from a contributor, David Chang. Torricelli has publicly apologized for what he called "minor transgressions" on the Senate floor, but has denied taking the gifts illegally.

The charges began a slide in support for the first-term senator, whose re-election had been considered a sure thing by pollsters. In June, he led Republican political novice Forrester by 14 percentage points.

As late as Sept. 12, polls continued to show Torricelli with a slight lead. But in the past two weeks, Forrester has stepped up television ads slamming Torricelli for his ethics violations. And a court last Thursday opened a sealed memo, which detailed gifts that he had accepted from Chang, a businessman whom Torricelli aided.

Torricelli's numbers spiraled downward. The latest Eagleton Institute poll, released over the weekend, showed him 14 percentage points behind.

Torricelli said Monday that he called a weekend meeting with McGreevey and Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J. While Corzine insisted he should continue to run, McGreevey thought differently, Torricelli said.

Torricelli decided not to run, and then spoke with Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other Democratic leaders, including former president Bill Clinton.

"There's a point at which every man reaches his limit," Torricelli said. "I've reached mine."

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