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Does scandal really matter?

By Matthew Cooper/Newark; David E. Thigpen/South Bend; Josh Tyrangiel
With reporting by David Schwartz/Phoenix

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New Jersey: Torricelli's ethical lapses have put him in a swamp of bad publicity, but he's got money and a machine behind him

When Bill Clinton called Robert Torricelli on the phone, he had a simple message: "Keep on fighting." After all, if anyone can empathize with Torricelli, it's the ex-President.

The local press corps is in a frenzy, feasting on the first-term Senator's ethical woes. When Torricelli addressed Hispanics in Newark last week, the crowd swooned to his riffs on taxes and jobs. After the speech, a TV reporter asked only about scandal.

"There are real issues," said Torricelli with a sigh a bit later, sipping a skim mocha latte in a nearby Starbucks. Then his cell phone rang with another reporter calling about ethics. The press may be overdoing it, but it's mostly the Senator's self-destructive behavior that's to blame.

It began in the mid-'90s with David Chang, a Korean-American businessman who wanted help getting money that North Korea owed him. Chang has woven extravagant tales of giving cash, suits, antiques and watches to Torricelli in exchange for that help, but Chang is a dubious source.

Currently serving time for witness tampering and illegal contributions to Torricelli's campaigns, he is prone to rants like accusing the fbi of planting evidence. In June prosecutors declined to pursue charges against Torricelli but referred the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee.

It dismissed many of Chang's claims, accepted others and "severely admonished" Torricelli for, among other things, receiving a discount on a 52-inch TV. When Torricelli insisted that he never saw Chang's largesse as violating Senate rules, he seemed arrogant.

Torricelli wasn't helped last week when a federal court released a letter from prosecutors requesting leniency for Chang. The letter repeatedly acknowledged Chang's problems with truth but said he had offered "substantial corroborating evidence" against the Senator.

Just as with Clinton, it would be a mistake to write off Torricelli. Virtually all polls show him neck and neck with g.o.p. rival Doug Forrester, a former small-town mayor who made his fortune helping companies hold down prescription-drug costs, although one new survey shows Torricelli in a free fall.

A Republican insider concedes, "We could easily lose this." Why? For one thing, New Jersey is increasingly Democratic. The state, which backed George Bush 56-43 in 1988, went for Al Gore 56-41 (plus 3% for Ralph Nader) in 2000.

"It's not like Massachusetts, where they're baptized Democrats," says Torricelli pollster Josh Benenson. "They've become that way on the issues." When Forrester promoted education in leafy Hasbrouck Heights, all the talk was about more spending for programs like vocational training. Clinton has told Torricelli that New Jersey is the most pro--gun control, pro--abortion rights and pro-environment state in the U.S., and those are the themes Torricelli is pounding home.

Another plus for "the Torch": money matters even more in Jersey than almost anywhere else. He has three times as much as Forrester. To reach voters, Jersey campaigns must buy hyperexpensive New York City and Philadelphia airtime. When you add Torricelli's field army -- Democratic warlords and a pool of more than 800,000 current and retired union members -- the Senate's best fund raiser has plenty going for him.

For his part, Forrester positions himself as a genial G.O.P. moderate like Tom Kean, the well-regarded ex-Governor. But Forrester may seem too negative. Torricelli-bashing ads have helped so far, but some backers of Forrester wish he would save his attacks. "If you put out all the cards now, people won't want to play later," says G.O.P. assemblywoman Rose Heck.

As if ethics weren't enough, Forrester says Torricelli is "reckless" on defense; he heatedly blames Torricelli-backed intelligence rules for the deaths of 1,000 operatives. The charge of soft-on-terror is over the top. Besides, there's no need to pour gasoline on the Torch when he keeps burning himself.

--By Matthew Cooper/Newark

Indiana: By foot and by Humvee

Hoosiers are less motivated by party allegiance than by issues, so the race between Republican Chris Chocola, 40, and Democrat Jill Long Thompson, 50, for the Second District congressional seat is forcing the candidates to try to show some decorum as they go after the 17% of voters who haven't made up their mind yet.

The dead-even race has got too heated lately for the liking of Long Thompson, who declared last week that she would make a "change in tone in my campaign." It was an attempt to dial back from controversial Democratic Party ads that charged her opponent, an agribusiness executive, with having "Enron values" and cutting health benefits at his company while boosting executive bonuses.

Chocola protested the ads' tone and veracity so strongly that local TV stations dropped them. The race has come down to a tough scrap over economic issues because any advantage that Chocola hopes he'll have by standing alongside President Bush in support of the war on terrorism is probably matched by Long Thompson's ready references to her husband's career as a fighter pilot and her open support for Bush.

But that doesn't mean Chocola isn't trying to make a distinction. After Bush came to South Bend for a fund raiser that pulled in $650,000 for Chocola and the Indiana G.O.P., he told the Washington Post the visit "sent the message loud and clear that there is only one candidate who would stand with the President consistently."

Long Thompson, who served three terms in the House and as Under Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration, has countered the avalanche of G.O.P. cash by going populist. She walked the 100-mile length of the district from Kokomo to South Bend shaking hands, wearing a baseball cap and sending out her message that her opponent is a wealthy CEO out of touch with the grass roots.

Chocola, a political neophyte, doesn't try to hide his pinstripes. He motors between campaign stops in a red humvee and usually wears a suit and power tie. His message is that he's an opponent of career politicians and a friend of self-made business leaders. "The trouble with Washington," he says, wielding a trusty G.O.P. formulation, "is too many people there don't know what it takes to meet a payroll."

The most contentious issue in the race is Social Security, since Long Thompson has a lead among voters concerned about it and Chocola needs some of those votes. Long Thompson slams him for once calling the privatization of Social Security a good idea. "It's way too risky," she says, "to put Social Security money in the stock market." Chocola claims that Long Thompson voted in Congress to "raid the Social Security trust fund." Looks like a hard race to cool down.

--By David E. Thigpen/South Bend

Arizona: Just being themselves

Politicians spend most of their time playing against type. Republicans are not too cozy with Big Business; Democrats are not tax-and-spend liberals; Independents are not eccentric. Sometimes it turns out that the stereotypes are wrong -- just not in the Arizona Governor's race.

Republican Matt Salmon is running for Governor and until recently was cashing six-figure checks as a lobbyist for Qwest Communications and the city of Phoenix; Democrat Janet Napolitano is the current attorney general who might tax her way out of the state's potential $1 billion budget deficit; Independent Richard Mahoney is recovering after he impaled himself on a steel post while trying to put up a campaign sign.

Napolitano and Salmon are in a statistical dead heat for the job held by term-limited Republican Jane Hull. Hull and Napolitano were members of Arizona's Fab Five (women who swept into the state's top offices in 1998), but now Hull is one of Napolitano's most successful issues.

During her two terms in office, Hull ran up a huge deficit but remained the most successful of the state's recent Republican Governors. (Evan Mecham was impeached; Fife Symington was indicted.) "Look at what happened to our state under the failed Republican leadership of the last Governors," said Napolitano during the first gubernatorial debate. Salmon, a former Congressman who led the 1998 coup attempt against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has brushed off barbs likening him to his G.O.P. predecessors but has had a harder time deflecting attention from his wallet.

He has received about $150,000 so far this year to lobby Congress for Phoenix civic projects (like the city's proposed light-rail system) that could deprive other Arizona cities of federal funds. "Are you running for Governor, or are you doing business?" asks Cecelia Martinez, director of the state's Clean Elections Institute.

Attorney general Napolitano has a different kind of money problem: she has urged lawmakers to reconsider a tax on Medicaid premiums to raise $40 million to $60 million toward cutting the deficit. In a state that considers tax cuts and air conditioning divine rights, Napolitano could be in for rough going. She also has a bit of a charisma problem. As a Phoenix New Times columnist put it, "Napolitano has been noteworthy ... only for her keen ability to strategically avoid being noteworthy."

Watching all this with glee is Mahoney. The 37 stitches in his thigh have been removed, and the former academic is back behaving like a typical indie maverick. He routinely calls Salmon and Napolitano "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," and he is polling at 6%, which means he could be the difference maker between Governor Tweedledee and Governor Tweedledum.

--By Josh Tyrangiel. With reporting by David Schwartz/Phoenix

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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