Menendez: Party insiders wonder if Menendez can survive

Party insiders wonder if Menendez can survive
September 9, 2006 The Record

News of subpoenas at a non-profit group tied to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez set Democratic insiders buzzing Friday about whether to repeat the "2002 switcheroo" that replaced a wounded candidate with a winner in the final weeks of the campaign.

"It's not at the point where party leaders are saying to Bob, 'You gotta get out,' but it could get that way fast," one insider said by phone from a party conference in Atlantic City where Menendez called the subpoenas politically motivated.

"It's all the buzz down here: Are we going to go back to the switcheroo? Can we?" he said.

But the answer, several Democrats said, appears to be "no."

The same factor that made Menendez the odds-on favorite to replace Governor Corzine in January -- a huge campaign bankroll that totaled $7.4 million on June 30 -- could be what keeps him in the race to the end.

"Say the party bosses sat down at a back room at Bally's and decided they needed to get someone else. Who [are] you going to get to do it? Where are they going to raise the money?" said one Washington Democrat.

When Sen. Bob Torricelli ended his reelection campaign on Sept. 30, 2002, Democrats got the state Supreme Court's approval for a last-minute replacement by recently retired Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Lautenberg had won three statewide elections and was well known to Washington interest groups willing to work for him and contribute money. He also opened his own checkbook and lent his campaign $1.5 million.

One potential replacement for Menendez would be state Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, whose political popularity surged while serving as acting governor in 2005. But Codey has never run statewide, and would have to start fund raising from scratch because of the differences in state and federal contribution laws.

The three Democrats in the House with Senate aspirations, Rob Andrews of Haddon Heights, Frank Pallone of Long Branch and Steve Rothman of Fair Lawn, have about $2 million apiece in their campaign accounts.

But with Democrats expecting to recapture the House this year, it's questionable whether any of them would want to give up the chance of serving in the majority for a long-shot chance of a Senate seat.

Finally, the candidate on the other side of the ballot is different in 2006.

"You're not running against [2002 Republican Senate nominee] Doug Forrester, who was an empty suit with money," the Washington insider said. "You're running against a Kean. I think Menendez is just going to stick it out and go into nuclear mode" to try to convince voters that both he and opponent Tom Kean Jr. are tarnished so voters base their choice on Washington issues rather than personalities.

Officially, Democrats offered support for Menendez on Friday. The chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, called Menendez an "outstanding senator" and assailed Kean for using the "GOP attack machine" to smear him.

But in background conversations, Democrats said they did not know whether Menendez would find himself in the same situation as Torricelli, unable to talk about issues such as Iraq and education and health care and the minimum wage because the press only wants to ask questions about possible corruption.

An expectation is widespread that federal indictments are imminent for at least one and possibly more prominent Democrats. The charges are not connected to Menendez, but could still put the party on the defensive.

Finally, former Gov. James E. McGreevey's tell-all book is also due out this month, and coverage of his discussions of internal party politics could derail any Menendez effort to focus attention elsewhere.

Republicans in the state Senate sent a letter to Codey on Friday urging him to schedule a vote on a bill that would make it impossible to replace a candidate closer to election day than 48 days.

"We believe that a hearing and a vote on this measure is vitally important to preserve the integrity of the electoral process," Sens. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, and Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, wrote to Codey.

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