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Who'll Get the Hold-Your-Nose Vote in New Jersey?

With voters up in arms about corrupt CEOs and abuse of power in high places, which is worse: a business executive who made a fortune from rising drug costs or a controversial career politician accused of taking gifts and wads of cash in return for favors?

This isn't a hypothetical matchup. In a race that could tip control of the Senate to Republicans, it's the choice New Jersey voters will face on Nov. 5. In the crosshairs: embattled Democratic incumbent Robert G. Torricelli. On July 30, the Torch was "severely admonished" by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for "poor judgment" after a former fund-raiser claimed he had showered the senator with cash-filled envelopes and expensive gifts to win his help on business deals.

Torricelli has not been charged with a crime--although he apologized to the people of New Jersey for "lapses of judgment." Still, the publicity has jump-started the campaign of Torricelli's GOP challenger, Douglas R. Forrester, CEO of BeneCard Services Inc., which manages employee drug-benefit plans.

A Quinnipiac University poll in June had the Republican trailing Torricelli by just eight points. In a survey of 736 voters, only 44% favored the high-profile incumbent, while an impressive 36% backed the all-but-unknown Forrester. Polls also show Torricelli's approval rating slipping from a mediocre 41% in March to an alarming 35% in June.

With the moderate Torricelli firmly in the mainstream, Jersey political operatives blame his ills strictly on ethics woes. "First he says he received no improper gifts, then no illegal gifts, then he paid [fund-raiser David] Chang back for the gifts," says Forrester campaign manager Bill Pascoe. "It's going to boil down to what the definition of `gift' is."

What's a running-scared senator to do? Go on the offensive. With boardroom scandals gripping the nation, Torricelli will use his $6.1 million war chest to deflect attention from his troubles by attacking Forrester's corporate ties. "He'll argue that Doug Forrester is a CEO, all CEOs are suspect, therefore Doug Forrester is suspect," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker.

In particular, Torricelli is zeroing in on the millions that Forrester made from BeneCard--a middleman between drugmakers and private and municipal health plans--while prescription-drug prices skyrocketed. "The only way to make those obscene profits is by contributing to the artificially inflated costs of prescriptions," says Torricelli campaign manager Ken Snyder.

Torricelli is hammering away at a series of dividends--nearly $8 million--that Forrester's closely held company paid him late last year, just months before the CEO lent $3.1 million to his own campaign. He is also trying to portray Forrester as sympathetic to big corporate polluters--a particularly salient charge in a severely polluted state.

To fend off the assault, Forrester is labeling Torricelli a tax-hiking Democrat who caters to big campaign donors while ignoring the needs of his Garden State constituents. National Republican leaders are pitching in. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani raised $700,000 for the state party on June 27. President Bush has promised to headline an even bigger event.

Still, the deciding factor in November could boil down to who is lower on the totem pole, an ethically tainted pol or a greedy CEO? "The question is: Which negative is going to prevail?" says Rutgers' Baker. Torricelli is betting that voter anger over corporate crime will trump voter anger over everyday political sleaze. For months, George W. Bush's continuing popularity has cushioned Republican lawmakers from charges that they were in the bag for Corporate America. But now, with the President's job-approval rating dipping below 70% for the first time since September 11, GOP candidates are facing a fair amount of political fallout from the business scandals, stock market volatility, and voter fears of a double-dip recession.

For the first time in the Bush Presidency, more voters pick the Democrats as the party best able to improve the economy, according to a July 26-28 Gallup Poll. And 65% say GOP pols are more beholden to large corporations than to ordinary people, while just 36% say that Dems are corporate patsies. One consequence: Democrats have taken a seven-point lead in Gallup's congressional match-up.

In past months, public support for the President had minimized the partisan damage from the continuing revelations of business misconduct. But now, with Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney under attack for their own past business dealings, the public is lumping Republicans together as defenders of boardroom privilege. A majority of Americans, 52%, say Bush hasn't done enough to deal with corporate scandals. And 45% say he should be doing more to right the economy. Another big shift: An increased number of voters now say Bush favors Big Business over ordinary folks. "Democrats are salivating," says media consultant Dane Strother. "I didn't think we had an issue until this."

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