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The Old Switcheroo

Democrats want to replace Bob Torricelli on the ballot because he's behind. It's dishonest, illegal, and undemocratic.

11:30 AM, Oct 1, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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THE POSSIBILITIES are endless. In California, it's said any Republican could defeat Democratic governor Gray Davis--except the guy who won the GOP primary, Bill Simon. So if Simon drops out, Republicans could install The Terminator, a popular GOP figure better known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, as their gubernatorial candidate. In Arkansas, where Tim Hutchinson is in deep reelection peril, Republicans could name his brother, Asa, now head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as his replacement. His election prospects would be brighter, thus improving GOP chances of taking the Senate on November 5. Or in Illinois, where Republican Jim Ryan is running far behind in the governor's race, why not get the state's most acclaimed elected official, House Speaker Denny Hastert, to step in?

If all of these possible candidate switches seem bizarre and more than faintly unethical, it's because they are. But they're no more absurd than the attempt by Democrats to replace Sen. Bob Torricelli as their candidate in New Jersey. Torricelli, a one-term senator, is running far behind his Republican challenger, Doug Forrester, and for good reason. Torricelli was reprimanded by the Senate for accepting gifts improperly. And last week federal prosecutors said they believed the testimony of David Chang, the New Jersey resident who said he'd plied the senator with gifts and money. Chang is currently in jail for having done so.

Now there's only one motive behind Torricelli's decision to drop out of the race. He's not dying. He's not even sick. He hasn't been convicted or indicted. Prosecutors feared a jury wouldn't find Chang credible. Torricelli doesn't have to leave the campaign trail to take care of a sick spouse or parent. And it's not certain he'd lose the election if he stayed around. There are five weeks left in the campaign and candidates have come from farther back to win. But the odds are against him. So to give Democrats a better chance of saving the seat and keeping control of the Senate, he stepped down. The only reason was partisan politics. In fact, Torricelli proudly declared this his lone motive.

The whole thing is a ploy. Democrats are trying to pull a fast one. To replace Torricelli with a more saleable candidate, they'll have to violate New Jersey law and the rules of democratic governance. The law says a candidate can be replaced--but only 51 days or more before the election. This election is 35 days away. If a candidate on the ballot dies or resigns, that's another story. Then the governor, who happens to be a Democrat in this case, would have the power to appoint a new senator and set a special election. But Torricelli is alive and kicking, and he won't resign his Senate seat because that would be tantamount to conceding the Chang charges. He wants to serve the final 90 days of his term.

There's a broader problem with the Torricelli stunt: it's anti-Democrat. Voters in New Jersey made their choice for the Democratic Senate nomination in a primary. They backed Torricelli. Now, he would be replaced by someone without the legitimacy of a primary victory but chosen instead by a handful of party leaders worried about losing an election. And there's the boring but important matter of the proper process. Candidates announce, stand for election in a primary, and if nominated by voters run in the general election. This is the democratic process, orderly, time-tested, and based on the popular will. It should be upset only in the most unusual of circumstances. There's nothing unusual about the Torricelli case. He's merely a candidate who's badly trailing and might lose.

Democrats have an honorable (and legal) way of dealing with the New Jersey situation. They can seek to hold onto the Senate seat through a write-in candidacy. Torricelli's name would stay on the ballot, as the law requires, but he could campaign vigorously for voters to scribble the name of some other Democrat--say, Rep. Bob Menendez of former Sen. Frank Lautenberg--as a write-in. The prospects of winning would not be great, but write-ins have won before. Instead Democrats, who angrily insisted that a court should not have decided the 2000 presidential election, are going to court, seeking to have Torricelli's name erased from the ballot and another name substituted. In its own way, this is as sleazy as the conduct that got Torricelli in trouble in the first place.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.