Washington Prowler

Torricelli Trauma Center

The mighty Democratic scramble to hold on to the Soprano seat.

By 10.2.02

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It's true that New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli was mulling stepping aside from his re-election bid prior to this past weekend, But according to several members of his Washington staff, they weren't surprised by the timing of his announcement, only that he didn't resign from office as well.

"We all thought he'd have to resign in order for the Democratic Party to have a shot at retaining the seat," says a Torricelli staffer. "But the Senator was adamant about not wanting to resign."

According to several sources on Capitol Hill, Torricelli and the Senate Democratic leadership were negotiating a possible resignation on Sunday and Monday, before late Monday afternoon's announcement that he would serve out his full term. Resignation talks bogged down when Torricelli wanted final approval on the person who would be appointed to his seat by New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey.

"That was the talk in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee," says a staffer on that committee, which Torricelli chaired from 1998 to 2000. "The Torch wasn't going down without a say."

To everyone's mind but Torricelli's, resigning would have been the best and easiest way for the Democrats to solve their New Jersey problem. McGreevey would seat a replacement -- most likely a member of the House in a safe Democratic district -- and that person would then run for Torricelli's seat. At press time, it was unclear under New Jersey law if a Senate election involving a replacement would have to take place in November, or could be moved by the governor to a later date -- in December, say -- out of "fairness" to the candidates.

But Torricelli has refused to resign without assurances about his successor. "It was about saving face, about not walking away under a cloud of scandal. This was a man who defended President Clinton to the end, who told him not to resign, to not take impeachment lying down. He wants to go out a fighter," says his staffer.

One person who was not on Torricelli's list, but was a favorite of the Democratic leadership: former colleague Bill Bradley. "They weren't particularly close when they were here together, and Torricelli felt Bradley would not be kind to his memory on the election trail," says the DSCC staffer. "He felt there were others who could run and win who would be more appreciative of his service in the Senate," says the DSCC staffer.

Those "others" included former Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Frank Pallone. According to a New Jersey Democratic Party operative, overnight polling Monday night indicated that Lautenberg had the highest name recognition of Democrats who could potentially fill Torricelli's seat. But in the discussions over Monday and early Tuesday, Lautenberg, a millionaire, balked at running because the state party and some national party figures had said that he would be expected to put his own money into the campaign. But as Tuesday wore on, Lautenberg received phone calls from DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, pressing him into service. "Lautenberg hasn't gotten this much attention from the party in years. He didn't get this much love when he was a sitting senator," said the state party official.

Had Lautenberg not finally agreed to run, Pallone would have required heavy financial help from the state and national party. That would have been the advantage of running Rep. Bob Menendez, who has more than $2 million in his campaign coffers. But Menendez is seeking a leadership post in the House, and intends to use that money on behalf of other Democratic House members to gain their support.

Now the task will be getting Lautenberg's name on the ballot. According to the New Jersey Democratic operative, on Monday morning in a conference call with state party officials McGreevey indicated that he'd received no indication from legal experts about whether the N.J. supreme court would take a liberal view of the state election laws that bar replacing candidate names so close to an election.

"These guys wanted guarantees that we were going to win, but we couldn't do that. But none of it matters, really, because we have the safety hatch of Torricelli resigning," says the operative, suggesting what Torricelli still might do if a state or federal court rules against the Democrats. "If the courts screw us the way they did in Florida, he resigns, and there is nothing Republicans can do about a replacement. Either way, we're better off than we were a week ago."

Perhaps.

Given his name recognition and past experience, Lautenberg will almost be running as an incumbent. But at age 78, and after all that has happened, taking on Republican nominee Douglas Forrester will be an uphill battle. On Tuesday, the Republican National Committee spoke to Forrester staffers about the national party pumping more than $1 million a week into the New York and Philadelphia media markets for advertising, this beyond the $1.5 million a week being spent on promoting Forrester across the state already.

"We're at a point now where we think we could actually win this thing," says an RNC staffer. "The more states where we're competitive the better chance we feel we about gaining that extra one or two seats we need to control the Senate. And if the Democrats are forced take money away from another state where they are vulnerable, like Minnesota or South Dakota, to prop up their New Jersey boy, then all the better."

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