- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

Senate Democrats said they won’t try to replace Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, despite new accusations of corruption that surfaced yesterday in the Democratic incumbent’s already tough re-election race.

“We expect week after week they’re going to throw these allegations around,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Asked whether he is sure that Democrats will not replace Mr. Menendez, Mr. Schumer replied with an emphatic “yes.” He cited new polls that show Mr. Menendez either slightly ahead of or tied with his Republican challenger, Tom Kean Jr.

A Menendez fundraiser and confidant was heard on a newly released tape pressuring a government contractor to hire a person as “a favor” to Mr. Menendez, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported yesterday.

In the 20-minute taped telephone call, the Inquirer reported, lawyer Donald Scarinci tells contractor and former FBI informant Oscar Sandoval that agreeing to the hire would afford him “protection” and that failing to do so could result in “the law of the jungle.”

Mr. Sandoval, who taped the conversation in 1999, said the clear implication was that he should the hire the person Mr. Menendez wanted or risk losing $1 million in government contracts, the Inquirer reported.

Earlier this month, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that federal investigators are looking into a rental deal between Mr. Menendez and a nonprofit agency that received millions in federal funding while he was a House member.

Recent polls show that the New Jersey Senate race is very close. An Eagleton-Rutgers poll conducted Sept. 24 to 26 called the race a “virtual tie.” Among 404 likely voters, Mr. Menendez was at 45 percent and Mr. Kean was at 44 percent, the poll found. A Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters conducted Sept. 13 to 18 found Mr. Kean at 48 percent and Mr. Menendez at 45 percent.

If Democrats lose Mr. Menendez’s seat, it will all but kill their quest to regain control of the Senate this year, because they must have a net gain of six seats to end the Republican majority.

“A Menendez loss is the ultimate insurance for Republicans that they won’t lose control” of the Senate, said Republican pollster Scott Reed.

Mr. Schumer said yesterday that Democrats face an “uphill” battle to regain the Senate but that he is “feeling good” about New Jersey and the Senate races in general. He said that Democrats always anticipated Republicans would launch a “smear” campaign against Mr. Menendez but that Democrats will continue to repeat the theme that resonates most deeply in heavily Democratic New Jersey: “A vote for Tom Kean Jr. is a vote for President Bush.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), meanwhile, has a legal team ready to fight any last-minute Democratic effort to replace Mr. Menendez on the ballot, as the party did in 2002, when it ousted embattled Democratic Sen. Robert G. Torricelli in favor of Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat who went on to win the Senate election.

“Democrats have a track record in New Jersey of pulling last-minute stunts,” said William McGinley, NRSC’s general counsel.

Mr. Menendez fought back yesterday with a new radio ad accusing his opponent of ethical hypocrisy, saying Mr. Kean is linked to two ongoing federal investigations.

“Tom Kean Jr. is falsely attacking Bob Menendez. But Tom Kean Jr. is the one under the ethical cloud,” the ad says.

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