TRENTON, N.J. – Former Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Republican Douglas Forrester immediately exchanged jabs after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the two to run for the Senate seat being vacated by scandal-plagued Robert Torricelli.
The court refused to get involved in the New Jersey Senate fight Monday, a defeat for Republicans trying to keep Lautenberg off the ballot.
The GOP says Democrats missed the deadline to replace Torricelli after he abruptly quit the race last week and left his party scrambling for a candidate as they try to retain their slim majority in the Senate during this pivotal election year.
"Game on,'' said Bill Pascoe, Forrester's campaign manager. "Now we've got the legalities out of the way. That means we've got a race on our hands.''
Lautenberg immediately attacked Forrester's campaign, claiming the Republican has focused solely on Torricelli's scandals and ethics issues to hide his own positions.
"With today's decision, his campaign of avoidance has come to an end,'' Lautenberg said.
Forrester said the final month of this new campaign will be about a choice between him or the "establishment elite party bosses who will do whatever is necessary to keep their grip on to power.''
The ballot fight resurrected memories of the Supreme Court intervention in the Bush-Gore presidential contest. But this time, the justices let stand the decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court, which had allowed the Democrats' candidate switch.
The high court did not explain why it rejected Republicans' request to intervene. The move left the Republicans without any way to block Lautenberg's candidacy.
Torricelli dropped his re-election bid, saying he feared he would cost the Democrats control of the Senate. The senator was admonished by the Senate ethics committee this summer for taking lavish gifts from a contributor to his 1996 campaign, and polls showed him trailing Forrester.
Also Monday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee asked the Federal Election Commission to bar Torricelli from giving his campaign money to his party or to Lautenberg, who has had to mount a campaign virtually from scratch.
Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Torricelli can legally transfer his campaign money to the party. Torricelli spokeswoman Debra DeShong said Torricelli has not yet decided what to do with the nearly $5 million his campaign had on hand.
Lautenberg, 78, is an 18-year veteran of the Senate who enjoys widespread name recognition. Forrester, 49, is running in his first statewide election and was virtually unknown before last week's publicity. Both men are multimillionaires.
A poll released Monday showed them in a dead heat with 44 percent of likely voters supporting each candidate. However, the Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll gave Lautenberg a slight lead — 46 percent to 40 percent — among all respondents. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points. Polls released over the weekend also showed Lautenberg with a slight lead.
Political analysts said Forrester has to find a way to get his name and positions out to voters.
"The number that hits us in the face these days is that 50 percent of the public really doesn't know Doug Forrester, even after all of this,'' said Rider University political scientist David Rebovich.
When New Jersey's highest court unanimously approved the candidate switch last week, Forrester's lawyers said the decision "opens the doors of American elections to considerable mischief.''
In its appeal to the nation's highest court, the GOP argued that the switch was a political ploy and that it would deprive absentee and overseas voters of their rights. About 1,700 absentee and overseas military ballots have already been mailed with Torricelli's name on them.
The Democrats said there is plenty of time to reprint ballots, telling the court: "It may be that Forrester believes he will be politically hurt by the New Jersey Supreme Court's judgment and is simply unwilling to say so.''
With the ruling, counties began mailing revised absentee ballots, with the first ones going to voters in the military overseas. Those who had already mailed in ballots were to get a letter informing them the ballot had been corrected and urging them to send in the new ballot to ensure their vote is counted.
As in 2000, Republicans had contested a ruling from a majority-Democrat state court.
The Supreme Court surprised both sides by jumping into the fight two years ago, ending ballot recounts in Florida by a bitter 5-4 vote. Democrat Al Gore had sought the recounts in hopes of erasing George W. Bush's slim lead.