WASHINGTON – He may be a Democratic stalwart of the Senate, but first-term New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli is facing trouble -- a late surge from his opponent, millionaire businessman Doug Forrester.
In a sign perhaps of the GOP's growing confidence in the Garden State, Forrester got a visit from President Bush, who took to the stump and praised the unknown former mayor of West Windsor.
"I like to put it this way: When you find a good one, you've got to back him," Bush told contributors Monday at a $1.5 million fundraiser for Forrester and the state GOP. "I believe it is in America's interest that Doug Forrester be the next United States senator from this state."
Torricelli, who imported Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to stump for him on the same day, collecting $500,000, has been under fire for ethics violations.
Though the former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is credited in part for bringing about the Senate's Democratic majority in 2001, Torricelli is considered the most vulnerable of the nation's Senate candidates, and his defeat could tip the one-seat Democratic control of the Senate to Republicans.
"This campaign is about restoring honesty and integrity to the office of United States senator from New Jersey," Forrester, a former Eagle Scout and seminary student, said.
Torricelli is on the defensive, apologizing after being "severely admonished" by the Senate for accepting improper gifts from contributor businessman David Chang. Chang is in prison serving an 18-month sentence for illegal campaign contributions.
While Torricelli advertises that he did nothing illegal, he emphasizes that his relationship with Chang could have been better handled.
"Although I broke no laws, it's clear to me I did exercise poor judgement," Torricelli says in the ad.
Torricelli's campaign manager, Ken Snyder, belittled Bush's trip as a "generic" presidential visit.
"Bush, in reality, doesn't care if Doug Forrester gets elected or some other warm body," Snyder said. "He just wants a Republican majority to vote for his plans to privatize Social Security and appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court."
Polls show that while Torricelli's numbers have remained stagnant at 44 percent, Forrester has pulled ahead by four points.
But before victory can be declared, political consultant Jim McQueen says Forrester has to get through the next six weeks until Election Day.
"You'll start to see over the next three to four weeks a lot of negative stuff put on his opponent, Forrester, saying that he's not really worthy of being a U.S. senator, he might not be able to tell the difference between Iraq and Iran, so that will be tough and bring those numbers closer," McQueen said.
But there could be even more trouble ahead for Torricelli. Five media outlets are trying to unseal a secret Justice Department letter describing Chang's cooperation with prosecutors.
"The appellate court said the letter does not contain anything that has not been said before and that's probably true. But in politics, perception is everything and seeing those things written down by officials of the Justice Department will have a tremendous effect," said Nick Acocella of Politifax.
Even though the Garden State has a strong Democratic tradition, about one-half of registered voters consider themselves independent. That could complicate re-election efforts for the senator they call the "Torch."
Many here are wondering if this is the year his career will be extinguished.
Fox News' Eric Shawn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.