President Bush waded into New Jersey’s bare-knuckles Senate race Monday, campaigning for Republican candidate Douglas R. Forrester in a contest both parties now see as pivotal to their hopes in November.
Bush spoke at a $1.5-million fund-raising luncheon here for the former seminarian and Eagle Scout, who seems like a made-to-order challenger to Democrat Robert Torricelli, a scandal-tainted incumbent.
Torricelli had been favored to win reelection until the Senate Select Committee on Ethics in July “severely admonished” him for poor judgment and a failure to heed Senate rules in accepting expensive gifts from a major campaign contributor.
Torricelli accepted the finding and said he would comply with the committee’s demand that he pay fair-market value for the items given to him, relatives and friends, which included a big-screen television, a CD player and earrings.
On the campaign trail, he has apologized to voters and sought to change the subject. But Forrester, who was little-known statewide when the race started, has not let up a torrent of criticism of Torricelli’s ethics lapses.
Recent polls have shown the race a virtual dead heat. That’s never a good sign for an incumbent. And it’s especially troublesome for Torricelli, because New Jersey has strong Democratic leanings and is a state that the party’s presidential nominee, Al Gore, easily won in 2000.
The New Jersey race has taken on national significance because, with the Senate’s current lineup of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent, a shift of just one seat on Nov. 5 could tip the balance.
The Democrat-controlled Senate has frustrated a variety of Bush priorities--a fact that the president noted with some fervor on Monday.
He did not mention Torricelli by name or take direct note of the senator’s problems in his remarks at the Forrester fund-raiser or in earlier public comments in Trenton.
Instead, Bush urged voters to send Forrester, a wealthy businessman and onetime mayor of West Windsor, N.J., to the Senate to help him achieve his legislative agenda.
“I need somebody up there to work with me,” Bush said, calling Forrester “a man who will be a breath of fresh air for New Jersey in the United States Senate.”
The president hewed to his familiar approach in his fund-raising speech, avoiding overtly partisan language while delivering a nonpartisan update on the war on terrorism.
Forrester flew to Trenton with the president aboard Air Force One.
In introducing Bush at the fund-raiser, Forrester recalled that Bush in his 2000 campaign promised to restore “honesty and integrity” to the Oval Office, a clear reference to the sexual scandal that led to President Clinton’s impeachment.
“Similarly, Mr. President, this campaign is about restoring honesty and integrity to the office of the United States senator from New Jersey,” Forrester said.
Torricelli’s campaign manager, Ken Snyder, scoffed at the effect of Bush’s visit. And, in line with Torricelli’s campaign strategy, Snyder tried to focus attention on the issues, not the candidates.
Bush, he said, wants a Republican Senate majority “to vote for his plans to privatize Social Security and appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court.”
In another sign of the race’s importance, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) traveled to New Jersey to campaign with Torricelli.
The Justice Department spent three years investigating whether David Chang gave Torricelli gifts to gain his assistance in business dealings.
The inquiry was closed in January, with no charges against the senator. Chang is now serving 18 months in prison for making illegal contributions to Torricelli’s 1996 Senate campaign.
With control of the House also at stake in the midterm elections, Bush will be stepping up his travels around the country on behalf of GOP candidates.
Today, he is to attend a fund-raiser in Washington for Rep. John R. Thune (R-S.D.), who is trying to unseat Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).
Later this week, Bush is scheduled to campaign in Texas, Colorado and Arizona.