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N.J. Senate: Wooing Corzine

Just one week after Jon Corzine (D) won the New Jersey governorship, he is being courted -- publicly and privately -- by a handful of Democratic aspirants hoping to secure an appointment to serve out the remainder of the governor-elect's U.S. Senate term. 

Corzine has said recently that he will spend no more than a month choosing which Democrat will replace him.  Beyond that, he has given little indication of his preference, though he has offered praise for state Sen. Nia Gill, an African American woman.

Most Democratic operatives see the Gill mention as a feint, believing the real field numbers five in all: Acting Gov. Richard Codey and Reps. Rob Andrews, Bob Menendez, Frank Pallone and Rush Holt

Three of those men -- Andrews, Menendez and Pallone -- are ramping up campaigns for the appointment. Holt has made it clear he is interested in the seat but is not running the same kind of aggressive effort as his colleagues.

Codey, who was interested in running for a full gubernatorial term before being pushed aside by Corzine, has publicly said he does not want the Senate seat, but national Democrats are still trying to convince him to reconsider. A Codey spokeswoman said recently that Codey's "first inclination would be to not want the seat." but the spokeswoman added, "He hasn't ruled it out altogether if he were to be asked."

Assuming Codey is a non-starter for the moment, here's a quick handicapping of the four congressmen and their chances of winning the "Corzine primary."

* Rep. Bob Menendez: Menendez is the leader out of the gate thanks to his huge warchest ($4.2 million at the end of September) and the fact that he would be an historic pick -- the first Latino to represent New Jersey in the Senate.  Menendez is running an "inevitability" campaign, racking up public endorsements to pressure Corzine into choosing him.  Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) has already thrown his support behind Menendez, and a Menendez adviser suggested there will be more "public endorsements over the next few days and weeks." The source added that Menendez will be a candidate for the nomination whether or not he gets the initial appointment from Corzine. 

Menendez's biggest problem is his status as the de facto political boss of Hudson County, a region legendary for its political scandals. He is also the subject of something of a whisper campaign in the state regarding his alleged relationship with a former House staffer. Menendez has refused to comment, insisting it is a private matter. Those two factors, Menendez's critics argue, make him a less appealing general-election candidate in a state whose voters repeatedly tell pollsters they are fed up with New Jersey's corrupt image.

* Rep. Rob Andrews: Like Menendez, Andrews is running all out for the appointment and pledging to be a candidate in next June's primary whether or not he gets Corzine's nod.  Andrews gave a speech at Fairleigh Dickinson University Friday aimed at laying out why he is best pick. "If ever there was a place and a time for a clean and substantive campaign, New Jersey in 2006 is that place and time," Andrews said.

Andrews is a product of the southern Jersey political machine, having come to Congress in 1990 by replacing his one-time political guide, Jim Florio, who was elected governor in 1989. In 1997 Andrews faced off against then state Sen. Jim McGreevey in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, losing narrowly despite beginning the race as the favorite.  One Democratic source who closely monitors N.J. politics suggested that Andrews's ties to the south Jersey machine could make it difficult for Corzine to pass over Menendez and select Andrews, since it would be seen as a "rebuff" to the party's northern wing.

* Rep. Rush Holt: The wildcard choice of the four candidates, Holt is doing the least publicly to campaign for the job. Insiders say he and Corzine are the closest personally of the four potential candidates.  And Holt does not have strong ties to any of the New Jersey political bosses, which could make him an appealing choice for Corzine, who during his gubernatorial campaign promised to clean up the state's politics.

Playing up his outsider status, Holt said that "the principle consideration that [Corzine] has to keep in mind is what shows he is a leader [who] is different from the past."  Holt's critics say his lack of a statewide campaign infrastructure and his relatively meager $401,000 campaign bank account would hamstring him in a general election race against state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the likely Republican nominee.  But Holt has proven he can raise money (nearly $3 million in his win over former Rep. Dick Zimmer in 2000) and win tough races in his battleground 12th district.  As one Democratic operative based in Washington put it, "[Holt is] not beholden to anyone, an outsider but with solid issue and experience credentials and a proven ability to win tough races on muddy tracks."

* Rep. Frank Pallone: Pallone has been organizing at the grassroots level for a statewide race since late last year; "I was the first person to announce and have been very public about wanting the seat," he said.

First elected to his 6th district in 1988, Pallone is an old pro at contemplating Senate bids. When then Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) retired prior to the 2000 cycle, Pallone formed an exploratory committee but ultimately bowed out of the race.  Then in 2002 when Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) resigned his seat just weeks before the election, Pallone was reportedly offered the replacement slot by then Gov. McGreevey and, after initially accepting, backed down; Lautenberg accepted and made his return to the Senate. That history has hurt Pallone somewhat as he has seen by many New Jersey insiders as having missed his window of opportunity.

But Pallone maintains that given his ability to win in the Republican-leaning counties of Monmouth and Ocean (both of which were carried last week by GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Forrester), he represents the party's best chance of holding the Senate seat next November. "If you are going to have Tom Kean Jr. running, you are going to need someone who is going to do well in Republican areas," explained Pallone. "This is my home base."

Overview: In the battle for control of the Senate, the New Jersey situation appears to be a boon to Republicans.  Corzine's deep pockets and incumbent status would have given him a significant edge, even over a strong candidate like Kean Jr.  Now, however, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee may be faced with spending substantial funds to defend the seat, draining resources away from other races.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 15, 2005; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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