New Jersey Senate: Does Scandal Really Matter?

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When Bill Clinton called Robert Torricelli on the phone, he had a simple message: "Keep on fighting." After all, if anyone can empathize with Torricelli, it's the ex-President. The local press corps is in a frenzy, feasting on the first-term Senator's ethical woes. When Torricelli addressed Hispanics in Newark last week, the crowd swooned to his riffs on taxes and jobs. After the speech, a TV reporter asked only about scandal. "There are real issues," said Torricelli with a sigh a bit later, sipping a skim mocha latte in a nearby Starbucks. Then his cell phone rang with another reporter calling about ethics.

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The press may be overdoing it, but it's mostly the Senator's self-destructive behavior that's to blame. It began in the mid-'90s with David Chang, a Korean-American businessman who wanted help getting money that North Korea owed him. Chang has woven extravagant tales of giving cash, suits, antiques and watches to Torricelli in exchange for that help, but Chang is a dubious source. Currently serving time for witness tampering and illegal contributions to Torricelli's campaigns, he is prone to rants like accusing the fbi of planting evidence. In June prosecutors declined to pursue charges against Torricelli but referred the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee. It dismissed many of Chang's claims, accepted others and "severely admonished" Torricelli for, among other things, receiving a discount on a 52-inch TV. When Torricelli insisted that he never saw Chang's largesse as violating Senate rules, he seemed arrogant. Torricelli wasn't helped last week when a federal court released a letter from prosecutors requesting leniency for Chang. The letter repeatedly acknowledged Chang's problems with truth but said he had offered "substantial corroborating evidence" against the Senator.

Just as with Clinton, it would be a mistake to write off Torricelli. Virtually all polls show him neck and neck with g.o.p. rival Doug Forrester, a former small-town mayor who made his fortune helping companies hold down prescription-drug costs, although one new survey shows Torricelli in a free fall. A Republican insider concedes, "We could easily lose this." Why? For one thing, New Jersey is increasingly Democratic. The state, which backed George Bush 56-43 in 1988, went for Al Gore 56-41 (plus 3% for Ralph Nader) in 2000. "It's not like Massachusetts, where they're baptized Democrats," says Torricelli pollster Josh Benenson. "They've become that way on the issues." When Forrester promoted education in leafy Hasbrouck Heights, all the talk was about more spending for programs like vocational training. Clinton has told Torricelli that New Jersey is the most pro — gun control, pro — abortion rights and pro-environment state in the U.S., and those are the themes Torricelli is pounding home.

Another plus for "the Torch": money matters even more in Jersey than almost anywhere else. He has three times as much as Forrester. To reach voters, Jersey campaigns must buy hyperexpensive New York City and Philadelphia airtime. When you add Torricelli's field army — Democratic warlords and a pool of more than 800,000 current and retired union members — the Senate's best fund raiser has plenty going for him.

For his part, Forrester positions himself as a genial g.o.p. moderate like Tom Kean, the well-regarded ex-Governor. But Forrester may seem too negative. Torricelli-bashing ads have helped so far, but some backers of Forrester wish he would save his attacks. "If you put out all the cards now, people won't want to play later," says g.o.p. assemblywoman Rose Heck. As if ethics weren't enough, Forrester says Torricelli is "reckless" on defense; he heatedly blames Torricelli-backed intelligence rules for the deaths of 1,000 operatives. The charge of soft-on-terror is over the top. Besides, there's no need to pour gasoline on the Torch when he keeps burning himself.