Republican Douglas Forrester draws cheers these days when he boasts that he kept his promise to send Sen. Robert Torricelli packing.

Trouble is, he may have done so too early. No longer weighed down by Torricelli's ethics entanglements, Democrats have pushed ahead in New Jersey's crucial Senate race.

Their last-minute fill-in for Torricelli, Frank Lautenberg, is leading in polls, skirting debates and hammering Forrester about newspaper columns written years ago. Lautenberg, 78, retired from the Senate in 2000 after 18 years but says he is fit and ready to return.

Republicans insist their candidate has a strong chance to break a New Jersey losing streak that spans 10 Senate elections.

But Forrester, who once introduced himself as "the guy who's running against Robert Torricelli,'' has had to retool his campaign in the weeks since Torricelli dropped out. The challenger's new approach: criticizing Lautenberg as soft on the defense and security issues that have received much more attention since he left the Senate.

Analysts say Democrats are in a stronger position now that the campaign is focusing on traditional issues that separate the two major parties, rather than on the ethics charges that hung over Torricelli.

Two polls released this week indicated that some Democrats and independents who had turned against Torricelli now plan to vote for Lautenberg. A Quinnipiac University poll gave Lautenberg a 52 percent to 43 percent lead among likely voters. A Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll had it at 47-42 among the most likely voters.

The potential sampling error was plus or minus 4 points in the Quinnipiac poll, 5 points in the other.

Both polls showed significant movement among female voters toward Lautenberg.

"When people were so disgruntled about Torricelli, Forrester could just say, 'I'm not Bob Torricelli,''' said Cliff Zukin, director of the Eagleton-Rutgers poll. "But now Frank Lautenberg comes in and says, 'I'm not Bob Torricelli either.' The Forrester campaign was left without a positive message.''

For months, it appeared that New Jersey was unusually fertile ground for Republicans in their quest to regain control of the Senate.

On July 31, the Senate ethics committee "severely admonished'' Torricelli for accepting improper gifts from a campaign contributor, David Chang. Torricelli aired a television commercial apologizing for any missteps and denying he had knowingly broken any rules. But the public was mostly unforgiving.

Torricelli dropped his re-election bid on Sept. 30. "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority of the U.S. Senate,'' he said. After a day of closed-door deliberations, state Democratic leaders recruited Lautenberg — who has long feuded with Torricelli — out of retirement.

About half of New Jersey's 21 counties had already printed ballots with Torricelli's name. But the state Supreme Court ruled Democrats could replace Torricelli's name with Lautenberg's, so long as they paid for the reprinting. Republicans asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, but it declined.

So Forrester abruptly had to shift gears to more conventional campaign themes, including Lautenberg's liberal record on issues such as the death penalty.

Forrester has focused particularly on Lautenberg's 1991 vote against authorizing military force against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. "If [Lautenberg] had had his way, Saddam Hussein would be an even more powerful adversary than he is today,'' Forrester said. He also criticizes Lautenberg's long record of opposing development of a missile defense system.

Like Torricelli before him, Lautenberg paints Forrester as inexperienced and too conservative. His campaign issued a document titled, "Doug Forrester's record on foreign affairs and national security.'' It was blank.

Forrester, a businessman and former state government official, spent $3.1 million of his own money to win the Republican primary in June and had loaned himself an additional $4 million as of Sept. 30. He has been on the defensive recently over columns he wrote a decade ago in which he criticized Atlantic City, New Jersey's ban on semiautomatic weapons and random police sobriety checkpoints.

The two sides have agreed to two televised debates. Forrester proposed several more, but Lautenberg demurred, citing other demands on his time.