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Flash Traffic | Political Buzz from Washington

Issue: "Who is Tom Daschle?," Oct. 12, 2002

In a closed-door Democratic strategy meeting in 1999, New Jersey's then-senior Sen. Frank Lautenberg criticized Sen. Bob Torricelli, his junior colleague, for openly dissing him in a state newspaper and speaking well of then-Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who at the time seemed to be preparing to compete for the Senate seat Mr. Lautenberg was vacating in 2000. Sen. Lautenberg expressed his displeasure, and Sen. Torricelli didn't take it well. Liberal magazines reported the Torricelli tirade as a vulgar, threatening encounter that-as The New Republic put it-"wasn't the sort of performance that goes over well in the decorous halls of the Senate."

Needless to say, the retired senator wasn't Sen. Torricelli's first choice to replace him. He was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's. Sen. Daschle likes the 78-year-old self-made millionaire. So, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, Sen. Daschle forced Rep. Frank Pallone out of contention and insisted New Jersey Democrats name the seasoned Lautenberg to run against rising GOP businessman Doug Forrester.

Republicans argue that the gambit is illegal. "The Democrats' attempt to steal a seat in New Jersey is the most brazen power grab in modern Senate history," Mitch Bainwol, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, complained to WORLD. A ballot replacement is only allowed "when the vacancy occurs more than 51 days prior to the election," argued Alex Vogel, the GOP's lead lawyer. "The only exception ever recognized by a New Jersey court was in the case of the death of a nominee." Nevertheless, New Jersey's Supreme Court declared that Mr. Lautenberg can run and ballots were ordered changed.

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With a war against Iraq looming, Mr. Forrester's apparent new opponent may be vulnerable to the charge that he's weak on national security. In 1991, then-Sen. Lautenberg voted against authorizing military force against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. He predicted "tens of thousands of American casualties" and a new U.S. draft, and he warned the U.S. could end up destroying Kuwait in the process of trying to liberate it. That same year, he backed an amendment that would have cut defense spending by $80 billion. Mr. Lautenberg's record also includes voting for the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1988 to restrict the conduct of foreign covert operations, and voting in 1992 to cut the U.S. intelligence budget by $1 billion.

Mr. Lautenberg is also vulnerable to the charge he's soft on terrorism. In 1989, for example, the Senate approved 79-20 a bill to impose the death penalty on terrorists convicted of killing U.S. citizens in foreign countries. Mr. Lautenberg was one of the 20 opponents. Less than a year and a half later, he worked to try to repeal it.

Mr. Lautenberg may also face resistance among middle-class families for his tax record. The Garden State is one of the most heavily taxed in the country. Mr. Forrester will be able to point to Mr. Lautenberg's voting 12 times against marriage tax relief and five times against abolishing the death tax, and a vote against capital-gains tax relief. He voted for the Clinton tax increase in 1993, and publicly opposed the Bush tax cuts last year. It's a tough record to run on, and there's little time to make his case.

The latest polls in Florida have Gov. Jeb Bush just 6 points ahead of Democrat Bill McBride (50-44). That's too close for comfort and GOP leaders are getting nervous. First Lady Laura Bush campaigned with brother-in-law Jeb on Oct. 2. Next to arrive: former President George H.W. Bush.

Al Gore's anti-war strategy appears to be backfiring. An ABC News/ Washington Post poll finds 59 percent of Americans say President Bush is not playing politics with the war. Rep. Dick Gephardt is leading House Democrats into an alliance with the president on Iraq.

Keep an eye on Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). A strong supporter of regime change in Iraq, Sen. Lieberman now has a reason to break with former running mate Gore and seek the Democratic nomination in '04. He's heading to New Hampshire Oct. 14-15, then to Florida on Oct. 20, where support for war is strong.

Joel C. Rosenberg
Joel C. Rosenberg

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