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Torricelli drops out of N.J. race

Campaign rattled by ethics controversy

Torricelli bows his head after making his announcement Monday.
Torricelli bows his head after making his announcement Monday.

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Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, announced Monday he was dropping his bid for re-election (September 30)
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TRENTON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Buffeted by scandal and trailing in the polls, Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, announced Monday he was dropping his bid for re-election -- a move that could prove pivotal in Democratic efforts to maintain control of the Senate.

"I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate," the embattled incumbent declared. Calling it "the most painful thing" that he's ever done, Torricelli said he was asking attorneys to go to court to have his name removed from the ballot.

"Don't feel badly for me. I've changed people's lives," an emotional Torricelli, 51, said. With typical self-confidence, Torricelli rattled off what he considered to be his political and legislative accomplishments, and relayed how Democratic leaders had tried to dissuade him from his decision.

The withdrawal from the race, just five weeks before the midterm elections, complicates Democratic efforts to hold onto the Senate. Republicans need just one more GOP senator to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats.

Torricelli's race had once been viewed as an easy win for his party, but Republicans have successfully made the incumbent's ethics troubles -- stemming from illegal 1996 campaign donations and questionable gifts -- a campaign issue this year.

Torricelli's decision sent Democrats scrambling for a replacement to face Republican Doug Forrester in November. Democratic Gov. James McGreevey, who attended the news conference, said party leaders will make a replacement decision by Wednesday.

But Republicans vowed to challenge any effort to remove Torricelli as the official Democratic candidate, noting the state deadline for such a change had passed. According to the New Jersey attorney general's office, the vacancy deadline is 51 days before the general election. As of Monday, the general election was 36 days away.

"The laws of the state of New Jersey do not include 'we-think-we're-going-to-lose-so-we-get-to-pick-someone-new' clause," Forrester said at a news conference, blasting the "desperate attempt to retain power."

The question of who would be on the ballot appeared to be destined for the courts.

Even before Torricelli's announcement, party officials were looking at possible alternative candidates, including U.S. Reps. Robert Menendez and Frank Pallone. Former Democratic Sens. Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg, a longtime rival of Torricelli, were also among those political figures party strategists were considering as replacement candidates, sources said.

Bradley, a popular figure in New Jersey politics, was being courted to enter the race, party sources said. But people close to Bradley expressed doubts that the onetime basketball star and Rhodes scholar would enter the race.

A former congressman, Torricelli had replaced Bradley in the Senate with his 1996 election. He proved to be an effective fund-raiser for his party, especially as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the last election cycle.

Earlier in the day, Torricelli's campaign had called reports of his possible withdrawal "misleading rumors," but, after a day of rampant speculation about his political future and talks with party leaders, Torricelli decided to throw in the towel.

Torricelli's campaign has been hurt by an ethics controversy, and new polls showed him trailing Forrester by double digits. A weekend poll by the Newark Star-Ledger placed Forrester ahead of Torricelli by 13 percentage points.

Torricelli was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee this summer, following an investigation into whether he had improperly accepted gifts from businessman David Chang, a campaign contributor who earlier this year pleaded guilty to violating federal election laws.

Torricelli, who once served in the office of Vice President Walter Mondale, said he made mistakes, but insisted he was not guilty of all the charges leveled against him.

"When did we become such an unforgiving people?" he asked.

He had earlier apologized to voters for his behavior. In July, he delivered a speech on the Senate floor, citing "lapses of judgment" and vowing to take "full personal responsibility" for what happened. (Full story)

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle praised Torricelli as "an untiring fighter for the families of New Jersey" and said "his voice will be missed" in the Senate.

Before Torricelli's announcement, a source close to Menendez said that he is torn about whether he would run.

Menendez is in a close leadership race for the Democratic caucus chairman in the House and he is concerned about jumping into a battle that, the source said, is already set up as a "losing proposition."

On the other hand, the source said that Menendez knows how important the Democratic majority is in the Senate.

A combative and aggressive politician, Torricelli made news both on the campaign trail and off. His romantic life was often in the spotlight. He dated prominent women, including Bianca Jagger, a human rights activist and the former wife of rock star Mick Jagger, and Patricia Duff, a wealthy Democratic donor.

Written by CNN Producer Sean Loughlin with reporting from CNN Correspondent Jonathan Karl, Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash and Political Editor John Mercurio.

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