Dems pick Lautenberg to replace Torricelli
TRENTON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Gov. Jim McGreevey announced Tuesday that former Sen. Frank Lautenberg would replace scandal-tainted incumbent Robert Torricelli as candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in the November elections, after Torricelli's sudden withdrawal from the race.
McGreevey said the state's Democratic leadership would formally file a petition for Lautenberg's candidacy as soon as the state Supreme Court approved the change in candidates.
"I am confident, based upon a thorough and vigorous debate, the citizens of the state of New Jersey will elect Senator Lautenberg to the United States Senate, preserving quality representation on behalf of our state, and ensuring a Democratic majority in the United States Senate," said the Democratic governor, in announcing the move.
Earlier in the day, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear a Democratic petition to name a new candidate for Torricelli's seat after a lower court stopped the printing of ballots to reflect his sudden withdrawal.
Lautenberg emerged as the leading contender to replace Torricelli on the November 5 ballot after another choice -- U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone -- said he would not enter the race due to family reasons, Democratic sources said Tuesday evening.
Lautenberg, 78, retired from the Senate two years ago after three terms and is a longtime rival of Torricelli.
In a brief speech after the governor's announcement, Lautenberg promised he would continue fighting for causes he worked for in his previous terms, such as the environment, prescription drug benefits in Medicare and abortion rights.
"It'll be the shortest campaign I've ever been engaged in, and I kind of like the prospects," he joked.
With just five weeks remaining before the midterm elections, the party scrambled to find a candidate in the race against Republican newcomer Doug Forrester. The New Jersey race is critical to Democratic hopes of holding on to control of the Senate.
Lautenberg criticized Forrester as being environmentally unfriendly and questioned his support for a woman's right to choose.
U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez also declined to enter the race. And the party's dream candidate, former Sen. Bill Bradley, who ran for president in 2000, told party leaders Monday he was not interested in returning to the Senate.
Menendez explained his decision this way: "My decision not to run for the U.S. Senate is based on my commitment to achieve a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, and my desire to become the next chairman of the House Democratic Caucus."
Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone halted the printing of ballots in a ruling sought by the Democrats. The state Supreme Court then agreed to consider the issues -- including how long it would take to print new ballots -- at a hearing scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Torricelli, 51, a first-term senator considered a rising star and renowned for his fund-raising prowess, announced Monday he was withdrawing from the race because of the lingering controversy over personal gifts he took from a major campaign donor and questions about campaign donations from 1996.
Though he escaped criminal prosecution, he was admonished by his Senate colleagues following an ethics investigation.
His sinking popularity -- he was trailing his little-known Republican opponent by 13 points in a recent independent poll -- threatened Democratic efforts to retain the party's one-seat edge in the Senate and prompted his decision to throw in the towel.
His withdrawal raised a host of legal issues, and Republicans pledged to fight in the courts against any ballot change. New Jersey hasn't sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 30 years, and they see this year as a great opportunity to change that.
Under New Jersey law, a general election candidate must withdraw at least 51 days before election day to be replaced on the ballot -- a deadline Torricelli did not meet.
However, Torricelli wrote in a September 30 letter to state Attorney General David Samson that he had 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.
In a brief filed with the state Supreme Court, Samson wrote he believes the court should "craft a remedy" that would still be consistent with state law.
"If the court were to find that there is sufficient time prior to the general election to enable the various election officials to attend to the mechanics of preparing for the general election, then the principles set forth in Kilmurray apply here," Samson wrote.
"This would further the general statutory intent and public policy to allow the voters a choice on election day."
Samson was citing the Kilmurray v. Gilfert case in which a New Jersey's county's Democratic committee was allowed to select a new candidate when the nominated candidate died after state filing deadlines.
Republicans plan to argue that Torricelli should remain on the ballot because he withdrew after the 51-day deadline.
Forrester argued Tuesday that it was too late for a ballot change, that some ballots were already printed and have been distributed to members of the armed forces and absentee voters.
"Some of these people have already voted and returned their ballots. This is an election that is in process. It is under way," Forrester said.
"There was plenty of opportunity for the Democrats to run somebody against Torricelli in the primary; it didn't happen. There was plenty of time for Mr. Torricelli to step aside before the 51-day deadline. It didn't happen."
A seven-term congressman, Torricelli replaced Bradley in the Senate in 1996. 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.
Torricelli's race was once viewed as an easy win for his party, but Republicans have successfully made the incumbent's ethics troubles a campaign issue.
Torricelli apologized Monday for leaving his party in the lurch but not for his ethical problems.
"I most certainly have made mistakes," an unbowed Torricelli said. "There will be those who concluded that those mistakes bring justice to this moment because there's a price to pay. When did we become such an unforgiving people?"
CNN correspondents Jonathan Karl and Deborah Feyerick contributed to this report.