Tuesday, October 17, 2006

One of an occasional series

The same Democratic leaders who have long hoped to regain control of Congress by blasting a Republican “culture of corruption” are in danger of losing their shot at the Senate because of accusations of corruption against Sen. Robert Menendez.

What was expected to be an easy win for Democrats has become one of the nation’s most hotly contested Senate races.

Mr. Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, has been plagued by news reports that he’s under federal investigation for a long-standing rental deal with a nonprofit group that received millions in federal funding while he was a House member.

His Republican opponent, Tom Kean Jr., has hammered the Democratic incumbent in negative ads. And the criticism increased last month after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a taped conversation in which a Menendez ally told a government contractor that he would have “protection” if he hired a doctor with ties to Mr. Menendez.

Democrats say they’re not surprised by the Republican focus on accusations of corruption but say Mr. Menendez will win anyway by linking Mr. Kean to President Bush. Polls show that Mr. Bush is unpopular in this liberal state, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.

“We are confident Bob Menendez is going to be elected,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Tom Kean is a George Bush clone.”

The lesser evil

Political observers say the outcome depends on whether voters here get angrier about Mr. Bush and the Iraq war or about state corruption.

“Is this going to be a national referendum or is it going to be a statewide referendum on state corruption?” said New Jersey Republican political consultant Mark Campbell. “If this is national, Menendez wins; if this is a statewide election on the need for reform … Tom Kean Jr. wins.”

“People deserve to know if their senator is the only senator under federal criminal investigation,” Mr. Kean said as he took a break Oct. 8 from shaking hands with the tailgating crowd at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

A Quinnipiac University poll taken Oct. 4 to 10 found 49 percent of likely voters support Mr. Menendez and 45 percent back Mr. Kean. It also found that 57 percent of voters feel the ethics questions about Mr. Menendez are serious.

One of Mr. Kean’s latest ads plays part of the 1999 taped conversation in which Menendez adviser Donald Scarinci asks a contractor — acting as an FBI informant — to rehire a doctor as a “favor” to Mr. Menendez. The ad says kickback schemes and federal probes are “what you get with Bob Menendez.”

In another ad, Mr. Kean promises to free New Jersey from the “clutch of corruption.” And yesterday, the 38-year-old state senator cited a press report that Mr. Menendez tried to help a convicted felon transfer to a prison closer to his family.

Mr. Menendez, 52, was appointed in January to fill the Senate seat vacated when Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine was elected governor.

The Democrat said he’s being attacked “viciously and falsely” and has repeatedly said he’s not under federal investigation, although Republicans note that he told ABC last month that “we welcome” such a probe.

Mr. Menendez has hit back at Mr. Kean with ethics charges of his own. He ran an ad blasting Mr. Kean’s campaign for contacting a jailed felon to dig up dirt for the race.

And he charged yesterday that Mr. Kean should be investigated for having a fundraiser with executives from UnitedHealth, which is burdened by a stock-option scandal. Mr. Kean’s father sits on the company’s board, but the Republican’s camp said there was no impropriety and accused Mr. Menendez of making “a baseless attack.”

Guilt by geography

Mr. Menendez is a former mayor of Union City with political roots in Hudson County, which has a statewide reputation for corruption. He recently complained to the Associated Press that he’s tired of being labeled “guilty by geography.”

But in a state where Democrat Sen. John Kerry got 53 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election, the Senate race is too close to call, and New Jersey Republican lobbyist Michael Torpey said, “The issue of corruption is clearly resonating with people.”

That resonance surprises some observers.

“It’s hard for me to see how the race turns on ethics,” said Rutgers political science professor Cliff Zukin.

Some N.J. voters seem indifferent to the ethics issue, while others are clearly turned off. New Jersey Democratic lobbyist Rick Thigpen said Republicans may be running a negative campaign in order to turn off voters and keep turnout low, which would benefit Mr. Kean in this Democrat-heavy state.

“Everybody’s disgusted with all of them,” said Pat Resciniti, 51, a Bloomfield resident who watched Mr. Menendez and other politicians march by in the Nutley Columbus Day Parade and insisted that she won’t vote.

What’s in a name?

Democrats contend that the race has been close not because of ethics concerns but because Mr. Menendez was widely unknown outside of his congressional district while Mr. Kean began with the most popular name in New Jersey politics.

That’s shifting though, they say, citing recent polls giving Mr. Menendez a slight edge as proof voters are responding to the message that he’s the one who will truly fight Mr. Bush — especially on Iraq.

“Obviously, our message is piercing through,” Mr. Menendez said after shaking hands Oct. 8 at a Fort Lee community picnic for senior citizens.

Mr. Kean began this race with five years’ experience in the state House and state Senate and a family name that evokes memories of the most popular New Jersey governor in recent history.

Tom Kean Sr. is known for his bipartisanship during his governorship and in his more recent role as chairman of the September 11 commission.

“There’s a huge allegiance, despite everything, to his dad,” said Maria Ramos, 36, a Belleville resident who favors Mr. Menendez.

In speeches, Mr. Kean repeatedly cites both his father and grandfather, a former New Jersey congressman. The Republican has billed himself as a reformer and tried to distance himself from Mr. Bush — saying he disagrees with the president on stem-cell research, spending and the environment, but agrees with him on permanent tax cuts and anti-terrorism efforts.

Patrick Buldo, 61, of Belleville said he likes what he hears from Mr. Kean and will probably vote for him.

“We need some new blood out there, and his father was good,” he said.

Mr. Kean, however, has had to walk a fine line since top Republican stars such as first lady Laura Bush have come to the state to campaign for him.

On the war, Mr. Kean has called for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign but doesn’t support a strict timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq — which Mr. Menendez voted for.

Mr. Menendez, who says he is “proud” that he voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq, repeatedly emphasizes his opposition to Mr. Bush and the war.

The Democrat has tried to steer the debate back to issues where he arguably has the advantage in New Jersey, recently distributing an e-mail video clip of Mr. Kean being confronted by the angry mother of a soldier.

“Tom Kean Jr. fails the test of character when it comes to his support of President Bush’s failed war in Iraq,” the e-mail said. His newest ad also charges that a vote for the Republican is “just another vote for Bush’s agenda.”

“George Bush is one of the biggest assets Menendez has,” said Mr. Thigpen, who predicts Mr. Menendez will win.

“When he gets to the Senate, he’ll just be a rubber stamp,” Becky Redington, a 62-year-old Menendez supporter from Montclair said of Mr. Kean.

The security issue

The Quinnipiac poll found that 63 percent of New Jersey voters disapprove of Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq and 57 percent disapprove of Mr. Bush as president.

Yet, New Jersey voters are also concerned about anti-terrorism efforts because residents had front-row seats to the September 11 attacks and lost many of their own. Some Republicans say the security issue is why Mr. Bush did better in New Jersey in 2004, improving from 2000, when he got just 40 percent of the vote against Democratic candidate Al Gore.

Both Senate candidates strongly advocated enactment of all the September 11 commission’s recommendations, and Mr. Menendez has cited his efforts to prevent a Dubai-based firm from taking over some operations at the port of Newark.

Yet New Jersey voters clearly separate September 11 from the Iraq war effort, Mr. Campbell said. The Republican consultant said a “schism” emerges because top Republicans consistently link the two issues.

The New Jersey race has drawn national attention because a loss by Mr. Menendez would all but doom Democratic efforts to capture the U.S. Senate. That factor has attracted star Democrats like former President Bill Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to campaign for Mr. Menendez, focusing on opposition to Mr. Bush.

As Mr. Menendez worked the crowd at the Fort Lee seniors’ picnic, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg stood on stage criticizing Mr. Bush’s Social Security plan, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, and prescription-drug plan.

“To give [Mr. Bush] a majority in the House and Senate would be a big mistake,” the New Jersey Democrat told the seniors, some of whom yelled out their agreement. “I’m here to plead with you — think of what happens if Bob Menendez doesn’t win.”

That message clearly got through to some.

“The reason I’m set on Menendez is because he’s a Democrat,” Lila Breslow, 75, said after the picnic, holding the crockpot she won in a raffle. “I prefer the Democrats to Bush.”

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