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Torricelli's move sets off legal battle

GOP fights Democratic effort to change ballot

By John Mercurio (CNN Washington Bureau)

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The legal battle has been joined over how to gain the political upper hand following New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli's announcement Monday that he would quit his re-election bid.

Shortly after Torricelli announced his decision during a 5 p.m. ET press conference in the state capital, the state attorney general advised county election clerks to await an expected ruling from the state Superior Court before they proceed with printing ballots for the November 5 general election.

According to state law, a general-election candidate must withdraw at least 51 days before Election Day in order to be replaced on the ballot -- a deadline Torricelli did not meet, a spokesman said. However, Torricelli wrote in a September 30 letter to state Attorney General David Samson that he has asked Bonnie Watson Coleman, chairwoman of the state Democratic party, to "pursue the selection of a candidate in my stead" in accordance with state law.

The matter will likely be decided, on an expedited schedule, by a state Superior Court judge in Trenton-based Mercer County. The assignment judge in Mercer County is Linda R. Feinberg.

Republicans clearly plan to argue that Torricelli, who trailed his Republican challenger, businessman Doug Forrester, by 13 points in an independent poll released this weekend, should remain on the ballot because he has withdrawn within that 51-day window.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement that the law in New Jersey is "very clear."

"The NRSC will participate in any challenge to the effort by the Democratic Party to replace Senator Robert Torricelli on the general election ballot," he said in a statement. "If there were to be exceptions to the law, it is highly unlikely that fear of losing an election would be one of them."

For their part, Senate Democrats also were busy plotting strategy with election attorneys. "New Jersey is now a battleground state and I fully intend to win with the help of committed Democrats across the state," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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