Person of the Week: Robert Torricelli

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New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli drops his re-election bid

When your departure ranks as your most popular move in years, you know something has gone very, very wrong.

It all began with a grandfather clock — (okay, and some Italian suits, a 52-inch television and a Rolex.) These gifts, given compliments of donor David Chang, lie at the heart of the scandal that destroyed Robert Torricelli's political career. The brash senator from New Jersey resigned suddenly this week, reeking of impropriety and tearfully bemoaning the lack of "forgiveness" in the world today. For making news — and making waves — Torricelli is our Person of the Week.

The trouble for Democrats, who have both eyes trained on a closely divided Congress and a razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate, began Monday afternoon. First, Torricelli announced he was dropping out of the race for his seat, citing persistent accusations of ethics violations, including charges that he took improper gifts from contributors. Then, his would-be replacements signaled they had no interest in taking the reins. As the veteran Senator appeared before the press Monday afternoon, you could practically hear the party elders hyperventilating in the background.

As news of Torricelli's decision filtered down the ranks, senior Democrats counseled themselves to remain calm. No need to panic — we just find a mid- to high-profile candidate who's willing to leap into a crucial Senate race with only 36 days before Election Day — and probably lose. Simple enough.

Or maybe not: by Tuesday morning, the ranks of possible candidates had shrunk dramatically. U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, the presumed front-runner, told party elders he wasn't interested, saying he prefers to stay in the House where his clout is more assured. Former Senator (and one-time presidential candidate) Bill Bradley wasn't answering his phone. That left former Senator Frank Lautenberg, the 78-year-old retiree whose squeaky-clean record, personal fortune and affable style made him as appealing to Democratic leaders as Torricelli was repellent. He and Torricelli, naturally, hate each other. It was just perfect.

There was just one problem: New Jersey state law forbids replacing any candidate fewer than 51 days before the election — by mid-week that count was down to 34. So everybody piled into the courthouse Wednesday to make their respective cases; Democrats arguing that they had a right to put a viable candidate on their side of the ballot, and Republicans insisting that "rules are rules" and that voters need to know those rules aren't bent for anyone.

By Wednesday evening, the court ruled 7-0 in favor of the Democrats, and clerks around New Jersey started putting Lautenberg's name on the November 5th ballot. GOP lawyers appealed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who has the delightful task of reviewing all appeals out of New Jersey. No word yet on what SCOTUS will do with this one.

Meanwhile, Torricelli is gritting his teeth back in the Garden State, as he vows to "find a way" to transfer the contents of his considerable war chest over to Lautenberg's campaign. Elsewhere, Democratic congressional strategists are gleefully calculating Lautenberg's chances over virtual unknown Republican Doug Forrester — and New Jersey voters are praying they've seen the last of this whole mess.