With each passing day, the New Jersey Senate race between United States Senator Robert Menendez and Tom Kean Jr. gets muddier.
And Christopher Christie, the corpulent, tough-talking United States Attorney from New Jersey, has everything to do with it.
Mr. Christie, 44, has long garnered public notoriety and headlines for his high-profile investigations into public officials. Most recently, he went crashing into the Democratic Party’s plan to take over the U.S. Senate by announcing an investigation—61 days before voters go to the polls—into a nonprofit agency connected to Mr. Menendez.
Just part of the job, he says.
“We have taken down many of the bad actors in this state,” said Mr. Christie in a speech to law-enforcement officials in the gym of a Monmouth County police academy on Sept 28. “No matter how rich or powerful, we have stood up and done the right thing.”
In his blue suit with oversized shoulder pads, he looked like a retired linebacker whose muscles, if not intensity, had gone soft.
He sounded very much like a politician on the stump. “That’s what we’re placed in these jobs to do, ultimately—to make this a better place, and a safer place, than was left for us by our parents and grandparents,” Mr. Christie said. “That’s our charge; that’s our mandate; that’s our responsibility.”
Afterward, in the parking lot outside the building, he seemed happy enough to talk with a reporter about his work. But when the subject of partisanship and its role in his investigations came up, Mr. Christie visibly reddened and stepped forward.
“I just stand by my record,” he said, his face flushed and his red, white and blue New Jersey lapel pin sparkling in the sun. “I don’t worry about that. I don’t get involved in politics, the silly season—that’s for politicians, not for prosecutors.”
But here’s the thing: Whether by design or not, Mr. Christie is involved. His investigation—dealing with allegations that Mr. Menendez steered federal grants to a nonprofit that was paying him rent—has become the central focus of the Kean campaign. Recent polls have shown Mr. Menendez hanging onto a lead of several points.
Mr. Menendez and his backers have suggested that the U.S. Attorney’s big-footed appearance in the middle of campaign season is no accident, producing as proof the sparkling G.O.P. credentials of Mr. Christie, a former Bush fund-raising Pioneer who was appointed to his current office by the President in 2001. (He has also made political contributions to Mr. Kean Jr., served as a Republican freeholder from Morris County, and delivered the eulogy at the funeral of one of Mr. Menendez’s political enemies.)
Further fueling the Democratic conspiracy theories are Mr. Christie’s broadly acknowledged political ambitions: His name has for years floated around political circles as a potential Republican nominee for either governor or Senator. With each corruption indictment, his renown grows.
“The joke among politicians here in New Jersey is that the worst call you could get is: ‘It’s Chris Christie for you on line 1,’” said David Rebovich, a political-science professor at Rider University. “People gravitate toward this burly guy. He’s not from money. He has this tough Jersey accent. His power is directly in proportion to the extent that New Jersey politicians have broken the law.”
In New Jersey, that gives Mr. Christie untold influence, and he has put some of the state’s top lawmakers and political operators—from both parties—behind bars. The Jersey press has beatified him for his energetic pursuit of the corruption surrounding the administration of Governor Jim McGreevey (“New Jersey produces corrupt politicians. The US attorney exposes, prosecutes and jails them,” read an admiring editorial in the Trenton Times on Oct. 2).
He has now successfully gone after figures with Democratic ties, like the powerful former State Senator John Lynch and real-estate magnate Charles Kushner, as well as Republicans like former Essex County Executive James Treffinger, the G.O.P.’s top Senate prospect in 2002.
And he has built up potentially invaluable name recognition among voters in the heavily Democratic state.
“He is becoming better known. He has certainly made a name for himself with all these investigations,” said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “The outcome of this current Senate race will be important for seeing what sort of impact he has, and what sort of credibility he has. He certainly is acting like a federal prosecutor with ambitions.”
Meanwhile, officials from his own party talk about him—and the possibility that he may one day run for statewide office—in almost messianic terms.
“Chris has been prosecuting corruption wherever he finds it and in whatever party he finds it in,” said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, a Republican. “He would make a great governor or make a great Senator.”
While Mr. Christie is certainly increasing his profile and brandishing his reputation in potential preparation for an eventual run for office, the immediate beneficiary of his latest anti-corruption crusading is Tom Kean Jr.
An awkward candidate with an impressive last name—his father was one of the most popular governors in the history of the state—the 38-year-old State Senator has turned his campaign into a living monument to the work of Mr. Christie.
In one of Mr. Kean’s radio ads, a narrator repeats four times the phrase “Bob Menendez, under federal criminal investigation.” His first television ad asserts that Mr. Menendez is “just one scandal away from becoming the next Bob Torricelli,” referring to the former U.S. Senator who was driven from his re-election campaign in 2002 amid questions about his ethics.
On the afternoon of Sept. 28, just hours after Mr. Christie spoke in Monmouth, Mr. Kean climbed onto a stage to address an auditorium full of college students at Rider University, in Lawrenceville.
“Can New Jersey ever escape the clutch of corruption?” Mr. Kean asked.
“The scandals that grace our front pages on an almost daily basis have brought us international shame,” he added, before pointing out how “the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey has been extremely active.”
During a question-and-answer with the audience of freshmen and sophomores, Mr. Kean visibly braced himself when asked by a student about a supporter who has expressed anti-gay views and who speaks on his behalf in a radio ad. He responded by banging the corruption drum once again.
“This is an individual who is talking about the corruption he experienced and saw in Hudson County.”
The student pressed Mr. Kean to answer his original question.
“I just did,” Mr. Kean snapped, before adding into the suddenly silent and uncomfortable hall, “Anybody else?”
Keep your eyes, he seemed to say, on the large man with the subpoenas.
In September, Mr. Christie’s office issued a subpoena to examine the records of the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, a nonprofit agency which, over the course of nearly a decade, paid more than $300,000 in rent to Mr. Menendez, who helped steer millions of dollars in federal grants the agency’s way.
“The big issue of the subpoena is that, while ordinarily they are kept confidential, it was quickly known by everybody that this was issued,” said Rick Thigpen, a Democratic strategist. “You would certainly wonder was there anything so significantly pressing that it couldn’t wait till after the election.”
Two weeks later, federal charges brought by Mr. Christie’s office against Mr. Lynch, a mentor to Jim McGreevey, resulted in a plea bargain and more front-page coverage in the Star-Ledger.
In an unmistakable sign of Mr. Christie’s current political heft, many Democrats now seem anxious to steer the debate away from the subject of the prosecutor and back onto the safer territory of the Bush administration.
“The bottom line is that there is a very clear choice in this race, and his name is George Bush, frankly,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“The voters here have heard allegations of corruption in every election, and they tune it out,” said Ray Lesniak, a Democratic State Senator who raised $750,000 for Mr. Menendez last month at a fund-raiser in his Elizabeth home with Bill Clinton. “Will it make the race closer than under other circumstances? Yes. But it’s really about sending a message to Bush.”