- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

The New Jersey Senate race has turned surprisingly competitive, with most voter polls showing Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. in a virtual tie with Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, one of the state’s leading machine bosses who has been hit by criticism about his ethics.

Ordinarily, Mr. Kean, the Republican whip in the state Senate, where the party is in the minority, would have a steep hill to climb in a state where registrations show Democrats outnumber Republican voters by better than 2-to-1. But he has been helped by an unlikely Republican ally: the press, which has been running stinging editorials and news stories that have called Mr. Menendez’s ethics into question.

When Mr. Menendez was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine late last year to fill his unexpired seat, the New York Times criticized the selection as “disappointing,” calling the former congressman “a proponent of business as usual. He has long been an entrenched de facto leader of the Hudson County Democratic machine.”

“There have been 75 corruption indictments in New Jersey over the last four years. The public has a right to yearn for a break from the past, and Mr. Menendez does not represent a clean slate,” the Times editorialized.

New Jersey newspapers have questioned the senator’s relationship with a former aide, whom he helped to get lobbying contracts and consulting work, while other stories have raised questions about his use of campaign funds for purportedly noncampaign purposes.

“Menendez is the undisputed party boss in Hudson County, and we’re going to be talking a lot about ethics reform,” Kean campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said yesterday.

“There is a crisis of confidence [in Mr. Menendez]. We’re in a period of corruption, and we need to have people in Washington, D.C., that people can trust,” she said.

Although the election is more than seven months away, most early polls show Mr. Kean holding a slight edge over his Democratic opponent, though Mr. Menendez can point to some polls showing him ahead, too.

A Quinnipiac University poll of 1,147 registered voters conducted March 8 to 14 showed Mr. Menendez with a 40 percent to 36 percent lead, with a 2.9 percentage point margin of error. But another poll of 800 likely voters taken March 6 to 8 by Strategic Vision, an independent Atlanta-based survey group, gave Mr. Kean the edge by 32 percent to 30 percent, with a 3 percentage point margin of error.

Republican campaign officials here said yesterday that New Jersey’s reputation for political corruption and questions being raised about Mr. Menendez will be the critical factor in the outcome of the race. And elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg last month rated the race a “toss-up,” and more recently called Mr. Menendez “more vulnerable.”

“It will be interesting to see if the Democrats begin to get buyer’s remorse as their concerns about Menendez’s baggage become an issue in this campaign,” said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But Democratic campaign officials say the latest ethics attacks by the Kean campaign are a smoke screen to divert attention from the Republican Party’s lobbying scandal and President Bush’s troubles.

“The Kean campaign is trying to change the subject so they can distance themselves from the Bush White House,” said Phil Singer, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s spokesman.

As for the Kean campaign’s focus on Mr. Menendez’s ethics, a spokesman for the Democratic lawmaker said yesterday that it had been tried before and failed to move voters.

“Republicans in New Jersey ran a similar campaign in [last year’s] gubernatorial election. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now,” said Matthew Miller.

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