- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

NEW YORK Three unknowns whittled down from a field of six are struggling to emerge from the pack as the Republican standard-bearer who will take on Sen. Robert G. Torricelli.
The first-term Democrat known as "the Torch," they say, has been hobbled by charges of corruption. However, perceived or proven ethical lapses, once the province of Democrats in this gritty state, have in the last two election years become the bane of Republicans as well.
Last spring, the party's gubernatorial nominee, acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, abandoned his race to succeed Republican Gov. Christie Whitman amid ethical questions about his conduct as township attorney in Scotch Plains.
Then, late last month, Essex County Executive James W. Treffinger, the party's favored choice for the senatorial race in county conventions and steering-committee meetings, dropped out after the FBI raided his office during an investigation of county contracts.
"People have either run out of money or been raided by the FBI," said Bob McHugh, press secretary to wealthy businessman Douglas Forrester, 49, of Mercer County. "I'm just glad Doug's still in the race."
The former mayor of West Windsor is, by default, the leading Republican contender in the primary June 4. To add one more twist, he is being endorsed by former Whitewater independent counsel Robert W. Ray, one of the original six contenders for the Senate seat.
Mr. Forrester has already poured more than $3 million into his campaign and is expected to spend much more to defeat his two opponents from South Jersey, state Sens. Diane B. Allen, 54, a former TV personality, and John J. Matheussen, the lone pro-life candidate. Mr. Torricelli, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, is registering less than 50 percent against his rivals in many polls.
A WABC-TV Eyewitness News telephone poll conducted May 5 to 7 shows Mr. Forrester ahead in the race for the GOP nomination with 33 percent of the vote, followed by Miss Allen at 25 percent and Mr. Matheussen at 14 percent. Among registered voters in a general-election matchup, Mr. Torricelli leads Mr. Forrester 47 to 37 percent, Miss Allen 47 to 40 percent and Mr. Matheussen 48 to 36 percent.
Despite the cloud over Mr. Treffinger's withdrawal, Republicans insist they will adhere to a message based on character: specifically, that Mr. Torricelli is too ethically challenged to deserve a second term.
"He must be held accountable for all the same reasons that were true a year ago," said Mr. Forrester in an interview, referring to the FBI's three-year investigation of the senator's financial dealings. Mr. Torricelli, 50, denied the charges, and no indictment was returned, but the Senate Select Committee on Ethics now has the case.
Nevertheless, an evolving theme of the GOP's strategy has been to invoke the name of President Bush at every opportunity, stressing fiscal conservatism, lower taxes and crime reduction.
"The early part of the campaign was 'I'm not Torricelli.' Now, it's 'I'm going to work closely with George Bush.' I'm waiting for part three, when we may hear them talk more specifically about what they'll do for New Jersey," said David Rebovich of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics.
The senator's response, theorized Mr. Rebovich, would be along the lines of, "Hey, wait, let's cut through baloney. I was not indicted, and this is a Republican conservative conspiracy because they want control of the Senate. And if we elect a Republican, he'll be outflanked by the conservatives, and there will be cuts in federal aid for transportation and education."
Some political analysts believe that the New Jersey Republican party, torn by infighting for the last few years, ignores conservative voters at its peril. They point to the defeat of conservative Republican candidate Bret D. Schundler, who was virtually abandoned by party leaders in the governor's race last year. "They think they can win with Democratic and centrist voters, but it's the conservatives who get you on the bus," said Murray Sabrin, a professor at Ramapo College who made unsuccessful primary runs for the Senate and the state House. "Everyone knows you have to appeal to core voters fiscal and marginal social conservatives to win a GOP primary."
Known as a deft infighter and strong campaigner, Mr. Torricelli, for all his notoriety, goes into the race with high name recognition. But state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, the Republican state chairman, said the pundits who have written off the senatorial race as noncompetitive have done so prematurely.
"The surveys I've seen show that half the people do not trust their U.S. senator," he said. Still, he recognizes the financial edge held by the dapper Democrat, who raised $1.9 million in the first quarter of this year, reportedly outpacing his 13 fellow Democratic incumbents and all Democratic challengers in the 20 other Senate races across the country.

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