Campaign '06: Running from the G.O.P. in New Jersey

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The Senate candidate in New Jersey challenging the incumbent constantly reinforces the same point: his opponent is corrupt, so voters need to dump him and pick someone with a higher sense of ethics. Increased funding for stem cell research, a ban on offshore oil drilling in Alaska and outlawing gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers are major planks in his campaign platform. He's also been sharply critical of the Bush Administration handling of the war in Iraq, and is pro-choice and liberal on environmental issues. Now, in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, he's called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert to step down. Though current polls show close to a dead heat, this candidate's opponent has a huge campaign war chest, enough to fill the airwaves with negative ads that could tip the race in his favor.

That's the campaign platform of — and challenge faced by — many Democrats around the country. But this challenger is Republican Tom Kean, Jr, the state senator and son of former New Jersey governor and 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean, who is running for the Senate in New Jersey. His contest against Democrat Robert Menendez, who was appointed to this seat earlier this year after Jon Corzine left the Senate to become governor, has become one of the most competitive and crucial Senate races in the country — and at times one its ugliest.

Menendez himself has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, but many Democratic leaders in the state have been involved in scandals going back more than two decades. Kean's campaign calls Menendez "Boss Bob," alleging he operates in Hudson County politics like an old-time machine politician. A Kean aide told TIME, "We want more info on Bob Menendez. Unfortunately, you have go to prison to find Bob Menendez's friends," a not-so-subtle reference to Democratic politicians in the state who have been sent away in corruption scandals. For his part, Menendez is now attacking Kean after learning that a person hired by a Kean campaign consultant had been in contact with Democrat Robert Janiszewski, a former Hudson County executive who pleaded guilty in 2002 to accepting more than $100,000 in bribes, to dig up dirt on Menendez. Kean's campaign says this is just typical campaign research

Considering what's at stake in this race for both parties, the mudslinging is likely only to get worse. As one of the few Senate races where a Democratic incumbent is vulnerable, it could be critical to the Republicans' chances of keeping control of the Senate. Democrats, who currently have 45 seats, need to win six new seats to become the majority. And Democratic candidates are either tied or in the lead in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee, all seats currently held by Republicans. But a loss in New Jersey by Menendez would virtually ensure that Republicans still retained control of Congress, even if they lost all those key races.

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