Republicans in New Jersey say that despite prevailing media coverage to the contrary, they are going to give "ethically challenged" Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli a run for his money in the upcoming November elections.

"He's extremely vulnerable," charged New Jersey state Sen. Diane Allen, who is leading the pack of GOP contenders against Torricelli, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. "The people of New Jersey want someone they can be proud of, they don't want someone who is going to be an embarrassment."

And yet, New Jersey voters are roundly behind Torricelli — who is seeking a third term in office — despite a year with plenty of negative publicity.

A lengthy federal investigation over his finances in the 1996 election did not result in criminal charges, but the material collected by the federal prosecutor's office has been sent to Capitol Hill for a pending ethics probe in the Senate. 

And just last week, a woman who was sentenced to three years probation for obstructing the Justice Department's Torricelli probe made headlines when she told the sentencing judge that Torricelli called to berate her for eventually cooperating with the investigation.

But the incumbent still leads the field of contenders, winning in polls by 12 to 18 points over his GOP opponents. His staff says that the GOP are floundering to find a candidate and an edge since the federal inquiry led to a big, fat zero.

"They are little-known people for a reason — they just haven't accomplished a whole lot and it's difficult to match anyone up against Robert Torricelli," said Ken Snyder, Torricelli's campaign manager, of the GOP slate.

Indeed, the GOP's top-tier candidates have one by one fallen off the list of potential contenders. Initially, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean was considered a potential candidate, but he begged off.

Then, former independent counsel Robert Ray, who had considered a run, said he would not throw his hat in because he hadn't enough time to pull a campaign together before the June 4 Republican primary. Then last week, frontrunner James W. Treffinger withdrew from the race after federal agents stormed his office as part of a corruption inquiry.

Political observers say the GOP ballot as it stands now signals no showstoppers. They include state Sen. Allen, former New Jersey Mayor Douglas Forrester and state Sen. John Matheussen. Torricelli is also being challenged by Green Party, Libertarian, Socialist, and independent party candidates.

"Certainly a person whose imprint on the news for the last year has been so negative and has appeared to be coming so close to either being indicted or censured, would have been a magnet for first-rate opposition, but it hasn't happened — and why? — I don't know why," said Brookings Institute political analyst Stephen Hess.

Bob McHugh, a spokesman for the Forrester campaign, doesn't buy the idea that the candidates are second-rate, and blames that idea on typical inside-the-beltway thinking. Not only is Torricelli an ethical liability, he has lost the confidence of the voters, who see him as being more concerned about the Washington universe than New Jersey, he said, and that's where it matters.

"There is a lot of dissatisfaction in New Jersey. Is he a formidable opponent? Yes, he his. But Republicans in New Jersey think it's their year to capture a Senate seat because of the kind of senator he has been — or hasn't been," said McHugh.

Perhaps in this case, polls are speaking louder than pundits. The April Quinnipiac poll indicated that the gap is narrowing between Torricelli and his opponents. Allen led the pack, trailing her Democratic foe 44 to 32 percent.

She was followed by Forrester, who trailed Torricelli by 16 points in a head-to-head match-up. These were gains by the two Republicans since the last survey in March.

"Sen. Torricelli is ahead. But he's hearing the footsteps as the all-but-unknown Republican challengers close the gap," said Maurice Carroll, executive director of the Quinnipiac polling institute.

Whoever wins the June primary will inevitably face the challenge of matching Torricelli's adept fund-raising skills in one of the most expensive media markets in the country. According to election reports, Torricelli has already raised $5.5 million for his coffers.

So what, asked Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"The money that Torricelli is raising is part of the problem," he charged.

Forrester has been making the best strides in this regard — he has already contributed $3 million to his own campaign. He's followed by Sen. Allen, who has raised $300,000, and Matheussen, who has raised $62,000.

Sen. Allen doesn't see this as an obstacle — once she wins the primary, money will follow, she said.

"I'll match my record against his any day of the week," she said. "Public service is what this job is about and I think Sen. Torricelli has forgotten about that."