The GOP's Giant Jersey Blunder

It overplayed its hand in attacking incumbent Bob Torricelli's ethics. Now the party is wishing it still had the Torch to contend with

By Howard Gleckman

Here's a classic case of outsmarting yourself. The GOP did such a great job hounding New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli for ethics transgressions that they drove him right out of the reelection race. But now, they face the prospect of losing to Frank Lautenberg, a liberal who will buck President Bush at every turn. Republicans would have even been better off returning the Torch to Washington. He, at least, repeatedly backed Bush on key issues such as the 2001 tax cut.

Republicans would have been happiest with a weakened -- but not ruined -- Torricelli. Polls showed the incumbent favored for reelection by a paltry 30% to 35% of voters and sinking fast. Lautenberg, since throwing his hat in less than a week ago, already has the support of 49% of likely voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

His Republican opponent, an obscure political neophyte named Douglas Forrester, has the backing of about only 43%. That was enough to put him soundly ahead of Torricelli -- but he now faces an uphill battle against Lautenberg, a tough, seasoned pol.


  The GOP's best hope of grabbing the seat ended on Oct. 7, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to stay out of the flap, effectively allowing Democrats to remove Torricelli's name from the ballot and replace it with Lautenberg's

Forrester was doing a great job running as the anti-Torricelli. His campaign was built on the premise that even New Jerseyites, whose tolerance for political corruption is legendary, were so embarrassed by the incumbent that they'd elect a nobody rather than reelect a crook.

Now, the Torch is toast. As a result, a bereft New Jersey GOP is left with no high-profile target it can use to galvanize support -- much as Republicans were lost following the collapse of communism, the "evil empire" that Ronald Reagan loved to rail against.


  Forrester is now gamely campaigning against what he calls the Torricelli-Lautenberg machine. But this won't wash: Torricelli and Lautenberg, who had been a senator from New Jersey until he retired in 2000, despise each other, and most Garden State voters know that.

The Republicans, of course, were hoping the New Jersey Supreme Court would keep Lautenberg off the ballot, thus allowing Forrester to run unopposed. But the high-court jurists -- nearly all appointees of a Republican governor -- decided to ignore the law, preferring instead to give the state's voters a choice of Senate candidates in November.

So the GOP scurried off to its new favorite venue for deciding elections -- the Supreme Court. The argument: Democracy demands that their candidate run unopposed. Putting a Democrat on the ballot violates the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, and a fistful of other federal laws.


  Their precedent for U.S. jurisdiction over what's normally a matter of state law? Why, Bush v. Gore of course, the Supreme Court's memorable decision reversing the Florida Supreme Court and handing the 2000 Presidential election to George W. Bush.

This time, the Supreme Court would have none of it. Without comment, the justices simply refused to consider the New Jersey court ruling. Bottom line: Lautenberg replaces Torricelli on the ballot, and Forrester is back in the world of political longshots.

Torricelli was among the least popular members of the clubby U.S. Senate. He was enormously successful at only one thing: Raising soft money for Democratic candidates. But he was also insufferably egotistical -- even by Senate standards. His Nixonesque valedictory address last week, in which he took credit for a boatload of important social laws and expressed wonderment at how a nobody could ruin his career, had Hill denizens rolling their eyes.

He won't be missed. Torricelli's ghost, however, may haunt Capitol Hill for years to come. The only question is: Which party will be having the nightmares?

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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