Torricelli’s Foe Opens Season With Big Blast

Doug Forrester is not a natural politician. He spent his career as a numbers-crunching bureaucrat and, later, as a private broker of prescription drugs. He looks and sounds like a cross between Lou Dobbs and Cardinal Edward Egan. He almost never smiles.

A wealthy, conservative Republican who once held the rotating mayoralty of West Windsor, N.J., Mr. Forrester is now seeking to re-enter government with a self-financed effort to unseat U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli. The fact that he’s attempting to rid Washington of Mr. Torricelli, he says, should be reason enough for voters to elect him in November. “Bob Torricelli is desperately trying to make this race about anything but what it really is, which is a referendum on him,” Mr. Forrester said during an interview at his campaign headquarters in the Trenton suburb of Hamilton. “New Jerseyans simply feel that enough is enough.”

But can this mild-mannered rich guy really beat Bob Torricelli? It is, at first glance, easy to understand Mr. Forrester’s optimism. For most of his first term, Mr. Torricelli has been embroiled in a highly publicized federal investigation into his unwholesome relationship with a wealthy donor who is now serving a prison sentence. He is personally loathed by many of his Senate colleagues from both parties, and by many of the Congressional staffers who have spent any significant amount of time working for him. His appearance is darkly Nixonian, as is his relationship with the media. And a recent poll showed Mr. Torricelli with a mere eight-point lead over his little-known opponent.

But here’s the thing about Mr. Torricelli: He’s a killer. (Politically speaking, of course.) The ruthlessness and ambition that is so unappealing to his fellow Senators served him beautifully in seven Congressional contests in Bergen County, where he outworked and eviscerated whoever ran against him. His fund-raising ability could best be described as awesome, allowing him both to batter political opponents with negative advertising-as he did in 1996 on his way to winning Bill Bradley’s former Senate seat-and win prestige posts like the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which he held from 1999 to 2000. He is an extremely eloquent public speaker and-equally important in national politics-an outstanding mingler. A divorcé, Mr. Torricelli has a string of trophy companions and a penchant for A-list social scene–making that have made him a staple of gossip pages.

If Mr. Torricelli’s supporters regard Mr. Forrester’s well-funded challenge as a legitimate threat, they’re not letting on. “The Republicans just nominated the wrong guy at the wrong time,” said Torricelli campaign manager Ken Snyder. “His whole candidacy is an accident of his wallet, and he’ll be running against one of the most heavily financed and aggressive campaigns in the country this year.”

They also appear to have found their line of attack against the largely unknown Mr. Forrester. In the next few months, television viewers in New Jersey (and in New York City and Philadelphia, since those cities are the advertising markets for Garden State campaigns) will get to know Mr. Forrester through Torricelli ads that will describe him as a shady and unscrupulous prescription-drug profiteer. “Voters are going to find the fact that this guy made his money by inflating the price of prescription drugs repugnant,” said Mr. Snyder.

Given the history of New Jersey politics, an ugly Senate campaign won’t be unprecedented. But the amount of attention the race will receive may be.

For one thing, with recent poll numbers showing high negatives, Mr. Torricelli is considered to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in a year when the Republicans are one seat away from regaining a majority in the Senate. For this reason alone, the race will garner enormous national publicity-and resources. But the fact that it’s Bob Torricelli fighting for his political life raises the stakes considerably.

During his one term in the Senate, Mr. Torricelli has been not only one of the top fund-raisers in the country, but also one of the most outspoken Democrats in all of politics. Since arriving in the Senate, he has raised more money for the election of Democratic Senators than anyone in the history of that body. And he has served as one of the Democrats’ most effective rhetorical wrecking balls: He was one of the first and loudest defenders of Bill Clinton when he was charged with fund-raising abuses and, later, during the impeachment trial. Putting an end to Mr. Torricelli’s career would in many ways be like a double victory for the G.O.P.

“Every race is important, but beating Torricelli this year would be a major blow to the Democrats’ ability to raise resources for their campaign,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen.

The NRSC can be expected to divert significant resources to the race if Mr. Forrester proves to be competitive down the stretch, adding to whatever amount he spends in his own cause. (Mr. Forrester spent $4 million of his own money during a primary campaign in the spring.) And Mr. Torricelli, who figures to raise and spend at least $10 million, will doubtless receive a massive infusion of aid from the DSCC to defend a seat that has been Democratic for a generation. “As an incumbent and a former head of the DSCC, Torricelli should pretty much get whatever he wants from the committee,” said Tom Ochs, political director of the New Democrat Network. “Not only is he a colleague, but he’s vulnerable-and he’s raised money for lots of Democrats in the past.”

Primary Losers

The contest also has huge significance for New Jersey’s Republican Party, still reeling from a pair of catastrophic defeats-Jon Corzine beat Bob Franks for an open Senate seat in 2000 and James McGreevey beat Bret Schundler to become governor in 2001-that exposed the party as ineffectual and hopelessly divided along ideological and geographic lines. If Mr. Forrester doesn’t win, it will further cement the perception that Republican primaries in New Jersey produce losers.

Is Mr. Forrester any different than past Republican failures? At the very least, his background is somewhat unusual. He grew up in California, studied philosophy and government at Harvard University and came to New Jersey to attend the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was an assistant pastor at his local Baptist church in the late 1970′s, when he began working as a legislative researcher for Republicans in the New Jersey State Assembly. His only experience in elective politics came a couple of years later, when he won a seat on the township committee of West Windsor and served in the appointed role of mayor for a year. (Mr. Torricelli’s spokesman pointed out to The Observer that the town raised its taxes substantially during this time to pay for sewers.)

In the mid-1980′s, he went to work for the administration of Republican Governor Tom Kean as an assistant state treasurer and was promoted to state pension director in 1985, when he became responsible for the state’s 500,000-member health-benefits program. When Democrat Jim Florio became governor in 1990, Mr. Forrester left state government. He put his knowledge of the health-care industry to use in the private sector by going into a prescription-drug business. The size of his initial investment is unknown, but he is now a 51 percent shareholder in that same “pharmacy-benefit management” company, BeneCard, which he valued on his Senate disclosure form at “$50 million or more,” the largest category. In 2001, according to the form, he took home a dividend of $5 million. That wealth has allowed him to run as a self-financed candidate, following in the footsteps of another wealthy out-of-stater, Mr. Corzine. (The DSCC recently filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission about Mr. Forrester’s self-donations.)

Perhaps the most important distinction between Mr. Forrester and the recent string of failed Republican candidates in New Jersey is that his nomination contest was unusually painless. He jumped into the lead almost by default after the front-runner, Essex County Executive James Treffinger, dropped out of the race shortly before the election when it became publicly known that he was under investigation by the F.B.I. Mr. Forrester was home free, as he easily defeated two poorly funded opponents who both had their base of support in the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. He never faced any serious attacks from his primary opponents.

A Gentler Primary

In his interview with The Observer , Mr. Forrester hastened to contrast the circumstances of his nomination with those of Republican primaries past. “This Republican primary was developed in a style that kept the focus on beating Bob Torricelli,” said Mr. Forrester. “It made it easy for all of the candidates involved to hop on board with the eventual winner.”

And Mr. Forrester, who opposes public funding of abortion, also rejected the notion that he was too conservative to win in New Jersey, something that may have helped doom Mr. Schundler’s electoral effort. “It’s important not to make too much of this ideological division within the Republican Party,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that the party nominated Bob Franks in 2000, and he was regarded as the centrist candidate that year. So we can’t get tripped up on these issues.”

It’s pretty clear what issue Mr. Forrester hopes voters will focus on: ethics. “The issue of conduct is very important,” Mr. Forrester said with a grave stare. “It’s very important that he not be allowed to get away with a whitewash of the things he’s done.”

That last point is a reference, of course, to Mr. Torricelli’s investigation saga, with all its seamy allegations about the Senator accepting gifts from David Chang, a donor. Mr. Torricelli has repeatedly cited a recent decision by federal prosecutors not to seek charges as an exoneration. When a television reporter raised the subject of the investigation during a recent interview, the Senator shoved the microphone in his face. Mr. Forrester, noting that the Justice Department’s findings have been forwarded to the Senate Ethics Committee, clearly hopes that there is more to come.

Mr. Forrester also believes that personal values will be his ticket to victory, and he indicated that he would keep talking about those issues. For example: “The issue of having a family is in itself a bedrock issue. I’ve been married for 27 years, and I’ve got three children. Raising three children is a very humbling experience. This is very relevant to the sort of values that New Jersey will be looking for in a leader.” Mr. Torricelli has no children.

Paul Mulshine, a widely read columnist and Torricelli antagonist for the Newark-based Star-Ledger , suggested that Mr. Forrester just might be the Republican candidate to break through. “He was lucky in the primary, but success breeds success,” said Mr. Mulshine. “He seems to be squeaky clean and kind of square, and even his name is great-if you were making a movie, you’d name the candidate Forrester. And you could write his negative ads pretty easily given Torricelli’s problems.”

But Mr. Torricelli’s loyalists are confident that Mr. Forrester is going nowhere. “This guy is probably the only Republican nominee in history to escape a primary with no discernible position on any issue and no vetting done of his chief credential, which is as a prescription-drug middleman,” said Mr. Snyder. “I just don’t think he’ll be able to withstand the scrutiny.

As for how Mr. Torricelli stacks up against Mr. Forrester on issues of character, Mr. Snyder said, “I don’t think voters give a lick if Doug Forrester has three children or six children or 20; good for him. They’re far more concerned with whether or not their Senator is in step with issues they care about, and if he’s strong enough to deliver.”

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