Last Laugh May Be Lautenberg's

The late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., famously said, "All politics is local." In New Jersey, however, all politics is personal.

Consider the relationship that developed between Sen. Robert G. Torricelli and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg during the years—1997 to 2000—that the two New Jersey Democrats served together in the U.S. Senate. "Mutual loathing" is the best way to describe it. "Everyone knows that we've had a very tough relationship," Lautenberg acknowledged last week.

No kidding. Lautenberg once cursed Torricelli on the floor of the Senate. At a meeting of Senate Democrats in 1999, Torricelli reportedly threatened an act of violence upon Lautenberg's delicate body parts. Torricelli once told a television interviewer, "The Founding Fathers made a decision that there should be two senators from every state. That is not my fault."

But when Torricelli pulled out of the New Jersey Senate race on September 30, the reason he gave wasn't personal. It was partisan. "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate," he declared.

That infuriated Republicans. "This is Clintonesque, I will tell you that right now," Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, fumed. What appears to outrage Republicans is the notion that a candidate can drop out of a race for no better reason than to save his party. Sen. Pete Fitzgerald, R-Ill., warned, "If we go down the road of losing candidates in Senate races and other races around the country—if, when they get a bad poll from their local newspaper, they decide to drop out of the race and let the party substitute a stronger candidate—that will be a sad day for our country. We can't let this precedent stand."

After all, what's to stop Republicans from pressuring, say, Bill Simon to drop out of his apparently doomed race for governor of California and substituting, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger? Not a bad idea, come to think of it.

The problem is that the decision to get a candidate off the ballot doesn't rest with the party. It rests with the candidate. And very few candidates, even those facing certain defeat, are willing to do what Torricelli did. All reports are that Democratic Party leaders in Trenton and Washington tried to dissuade Torricelli from leaving the ticket. They feared it would throw the Democratic campaign into chaos. Even Torricelli probably would not have done it if he had known who would succeed him.

New Jersey Democrats needed a candidate with name recognition, a good reputation, and money—someone like Frank Lautenberg. But why would Lautenberg want to come out of retirement, at 78, to resume a career he once described as "a large personal inconvenience"? Maybe for personal reasons. What delicious revenge—to see your old adversary disgraced, then to be the one to take his job!

New Jersey Democrats, out of deference to Torricelli, tried to get someone other than Lautenberg to run. They approached former Sen. Bill Bradley and two House members but found no taker. Lautenberg says he's running to make sure voters have a choice.

In permitting Lautenberg's name to go on the ballot, the New Jersey Supreme Court used the same argument as Lautenberg. "The court should invoke its equitable powers in favor of a full and fair ballot choice for the voters of New Jersey," Chief Justice Deborah Poritz wrote in the court's unanimous ruling.

Republicans were in the odd position of begging the courts to force a candidate who didn't want to run to keep on running, because they knew they could beat him. In fact, the GOP nominee, Doug Forrester, still intends to run against Torricelli. "We're in a situation where 'The Torricelli-Lautenberg Machine' is a perfect title for this kind of campaign," Forrester says. The Torricelli-Lautenberg Machine? That's laughable, but Lautenberg may get the last laugh.

Lautenberg's biggest problem is likely to be his age. When he defeated Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick in 1982, Lautenberg depicted her as too old for the Senate. Fenwick was 72. Lautenberg's current take on his age? "None of the vigor, none of the enthusiasm that I had in 1982 when I stepped into the fray has diminished."

And why the extraordinary national interest in the New Jersey Senate race? Because on every level of political life below president, the 2000 election stalemate persists. Both parties are trying to break the stalemate this year.

In the race for control of the Senate, the parties appear equally vulnerable. Analysts see four toss-up Senate races in seats currently held by Democrats: Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, and now New Jersey. Those are precisely balanced by four toss-up races in GOP-held Senate seats: Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Texas.

Anything that tips the balance in any one of those races could determine who controls the Senate for the rest of President Bush's term—and whether the president's agenda is endorsed or blocked.

Remember the summons, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party"? That's exactly what Torricelli and Lautenberg just did.