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A Political Bruiser Knocks Himself Out for the Count

He tangled with the CIA, helped oust Republicans, angered good-government groups, sparred with fellow Democrats. He clashed with reformers who oppose the embargo of Cuba, flustered consumer groups by supporting bankruptcy reform.

But after 20 tumultuous years in Congress, Sen. Robert Torricelli finally met an opponent he could not overcome: himself. Swamped by questions about his personal ethics and integrity, Torricelli aborted his re-election campaign Monday just 36 days before Election Day.

Ever since he was "severely admonished" by the Senate ethics committee for his relationship with a former campaign contributor, Torricelli has simultaneously apologized and denied doing anything wrong. But several polls indicated that New Jersey voters had seen and heard enough of "The Torch."

"Any politician who is a great political spectacle is always in danger of having that turn into scandal, rather than fame," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

Torricelli's most striking political skill -- raising money -- contributed to his rise and, ultimately, his fall.

As far back as 1995, when he was still a member of the House, the FBI investigated a financial deal Torricelli made with a major campaign contributor, Grover Connell. Connell arranged and guaranteed a $100,000 loan that helped Torricelli hit it big in the stock market. No charges were filed.

After Torricelli raised $9 million to win his Senate seat in 1996, fellow Democrats immediately tapped him to help lead their campaign fund-raising effort. Meanwhile, federal investigators opened a new inquiry that resulted in seven people pleading guilty to making illegal donations to Torricelli's 1996 campaign.

One of them, David Chang, alleged that he had plied Torricelli with gifts and cash in exchange for help in his business dealings overseas. After a thorough probe, the investigators closed the case in January with no charges against Torricelli.

But they forwarded material to the Senate ethics committee, which found that Torricelli had improperly accepted gifts from Chang.

Baker said the official rebuke was particularly damaging to Torricelli because the public already had "a sense that this was somebody who really wasn't on the up-and-up."

Fighting tears, Torricelli announced his decision in a late-afternoon speech that was at turns apologetic and defiant.

"I am a human being, and while I have not done the things I am accused of doing, I certainly have made mistakes," he said. "I remember an America when a person made an error and asked forgiveness, they were forgiven. That was our faith and our culture."

In an institution where seniority counts, Torricelli found the spotlight early and often, for better and for worse.

Under Torricelli, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised more than $85 million in the 1999-2000 cycle and helped knock out five Republicans to reach 50-50 parity in the Senate. Democrats took power six months into 2001 when Vermont Sen. James Jeffords switched affiliation from Republican to independent.

Torricelli's reward was a seat on the Senate Finance Committee. With that powerful platform, he played a key role in passing tax breaks for families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

He helped defend President Bill Clinton against impeachment but broke with his party to support President Bush's tax cuts. He cast the deciding vote against a balanced budget amendment even though he had supported it as a candidate.

He continued to invest his money aggressively, sometimes partaking in initial public offerings of stock that other lawmakers avoid.

He launched an unsuccessful attempt to capture his party's nomination for New Jersey governor, creating a rift that he later had to repair with the eventual Democratic winner, James E. McGreevey. Twice during the Florida presidential recount, Torricelli angered Democrats by making statements that pressured Vice President Al Gore to concede.

He feuded publicly with a fellow New Jersey senator, Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Now retired, Lautenberg suggested earlier this year that Torricelli should take a lie-detector test -- a comment Lautenberg later said was a joke.

Now, in an irony that no doubt pains Torricelli, Lautenberg is among the Democrats being mentioned as possible successors on the Nov. 5 ballot.