’02 Torch Song: Bob Sputters, Frank Enters

The strange and abrupt end to the political career of Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey has left his Democratic colleagues in New York somewhat confused. Publicly, there’s a cautious optimism about the possibility of prevailing in a race that Democrats had almost no chance of winning if Mr. Torricelli had stayed in. Privately, sentiment is more varied, ranging from gloating to depression over the grim turn of events. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Torricelli seemed embattled but secure as little-known challenger Doug Forrester tried to gain some traction.

Now Mr. Forrester, a self-financed businessman, is the favorite, and Mr. Torricelli is history.

“I’m still in shock over it, frankly,” said upstate Congressman Maurice Hinchey. “We knew Bob was having trouble based on his fund-raising activities, but I must admit I was really shocked to hear that he was withdrawing.”

The way in which Mr. Torricelli announced his withdrawal was bizarre enough. One of the fiercest politicians in America, Mr. Torricelli gave a goodbye address in the New Jersey statehouse during which, in a cracking voice, he touched on everything from the supposed lack of empathy in today’s America to a will that he said he made out when he was 5 years old.

But the effect of his Nixonian farewell speech was to raise a host of new questions about the fate of his seat and the effect that his withdrawal will have on his colleagues. In his emotionally tortured announcement on Sept. 30, Mr. Torricelli put an end to a campaign that had come to focus primarily on his ethical problems stemming from his unwholesome financial relationship with a contributor. A combination of relentlessly awful press, and admonishment from the Senate Ethics Committee and Mr. Forrester’s attacks had caused his numbers to plunge in public and private polls. Concluding that he had no chance of winning, he dropped out.

The immediate wisdom that emerged among Democrats was that the withdrawal would be a boon for several reasons, chief among them that it would give them a chance to defend the seemingly indefensible seat. “It’s pretty simple,” said Congressman Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn. “We were going to lose that seat, and now I think that we’ll win it. I just don’t think Forrester is a good candidate. All he knows how to do is run against Bob Torricelli.” Mr. Forrester, who is running for the first time for statewide office, had said from the beginning of his campaign that he intended to turn the race into a referendum on Mr. Torricelli.

Some other Democrats-even those less optimistic about the strategic value of Mr. Torricelli’s withdrawal-defended his decision on the merits. “You have to understand that the Senate is his whole life,” said Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from the Bronx who served with Mr. Torricelli in the House and considers him a friend. “People think that [Senator] Chuck Schumer is driven, but Torricelli spends every waking moment thinking about this stuff. He brought these problems on himself, and so I don’t think many people have too much sympathy for him right now, but it took a lot for him to step down, and I think he deserves credit for putting his party ahead of his personal agenda.”

Whatever the immediate impact of Mr. Torricelli’s move, it may produce some significant side benefits for Democrats. While the national party would have been obliged to spend heaps of money in the defense of the incumbent, however hopeless his cause, Democrats across the country now stand to benefit from millions of dollars from the national party and from Mr. Torricelli’s own campaign coffers. “This race was not just extraordinarily expensive for Democrats nationally, but it put them on the defensive,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic fund-raiser who is on the board of the Democratic National Committee. “I think Torricelli was a tremendous financial drain for Democrats nationally and in the metropolitan area, all for what was obviously a losing proposition. This will allow Democrats to go back on the offensive, and will free up a tremendous amount of resources at the same time.”

It’s somewhat ironic that Mr. Torricelli should have become a financial burden on the Democratic Party. He rose to power in the first place as one of the most voracious Democratic fund-raisers in the history of the Congress, shattering records in his capacity as Senator and head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. While his almost superhuman ability to attract funds was a huge asset to the national party and its successful effort to win control of the Senate, it was somewhat less helpful for competing area politicians. Some of them sound almost relieved that Mr. Torricelli will no longer be around to snap up donors’ dollars.

“All over the 1-0-0 [Manhattan] ZIP codes, people will be able to answer their phones again without fear of fund-raising calls from Bob Torricelli,” said one colleague, who asked to remain anonymous.

Enemies, Inc.

Of course, some Democrats are smiling at Mr. Torricelli’s misfortunes, for reasons that have little to do with money. His cutthroat style of politics made him an inordinate number of enemies in both parties throughout the years, and many of them are fairly delighted at his downfall. “I don’t know anyone who’s prepared to say that this guy is misunderstood” said one Democrat from New York. “No one is too broken up about this.”

But whatever comfort some Democrats may derive from Mr. Torricelli’s demise may be short-lived: The balance of power in the Senate, the only Democratic power base in Washington, may well hinge on the result of the race in New Jersey. If things were looking grim before, when Mr. Torricelli was trailing by double digits in the polls, they don’t look much better now.

To begin with, any scenario in which a replacement Democrat comes in to rescue the seat will require the approval of the courts, and precedent is anything but clear. The question now will be decided in large part in the New Jersey Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the legality of replacing the ballot on the morning of Oct. 2. Hoping to get around a law that says a candidate must drop out no fewer than 51 days before an election in order to be replaced on the ballot, Democrats have filed a petition requesting to be allowed to do just that. Failing a Democratic victory in the courts, Mr. Torricelli would have to resign his seat in order for another Democrat to have any chance of getting on the ballot.

Then there’s the small problem of who, exactly, will be able to succeed Mr. Torricelli as the Democratic candidate. Most of the best-known names that were bandied about in the hours immediately following the Senator’s withdrawal have been eliminated as possibilities. Former Senator Bill Bradley and well-funded Congressman Robert Menendez aren’t interested. As of press time on Oct. 1, former Senator and Torricelli nemesis Frank Lautenberg was still in the running.

Any victory scenario for the Democrats also depends on the notion that Mr. Forrester is a fundamentally weak candidate whose success until now has been driven entirely by Mr. Torricelli’s self-destruction. Mr. Forrester is a political newcomer, a plain-looking candidate whose previous political experience came when he ran for election to the town board of West Windsor, N.J. And he has based his campaign upon Mr. Torricelli’s unpopularity. (“I’m Doug Forrester, the guy who’s running against Bob Torricelli,” he has frequently said.)

But some Democratic tacticians caution that the Republican is being sold vastly short. “Democrats are definitely underestimating Forrester, and overestimating New Jersey voters’ desire to vote for just any Democrat on the ballot,” said Tom Ochs, political director of the New Democrat Network. “He’s spent a ton of money on political advertising. He’s gotten an incredible amount of free press, and he did well in the debates against Torricelli. There’s definitely more to him as a candidate than just ‘I’m not Torricelli.’”

Regardless of who emerges as the new Democratic candidate, it’s worth noting that Mr. Torricelli is the second high-powered Democrat to abandon a campaign in its final weeks. Andrew Cuomo, another acerbic and highly competitive personality, dropped out of the New York Democratic primary for Governor in early September, pre-empting certain defeat at the hands of his opponent, Carl McCall. Coincidence? Some Democrats think not. Said one philosophically minded New York official: “It could be that with Rudy Giuliani acting like a nice guy, and Torricelli and Cuomo dropping out of their races, the age of the ball-buster is over.”