Torricelli Torched by Ethics in First Candidates' Debate

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - Sen. Robert Torricelli's ethical lapses have dogged him for the last five years in the U.S. Senate, and those lapses followed him right into his first debate Thursday night with Republican challenger Doug Forrester, who has made Torricelli's questionable ethics the central theme of his campaign.

"This is a pattern of behavior which is far more serious than he is letting on and we cannot let it pass," said Forrester, seizing every opportunity to remind New Jersey voters that Torricelli, a Democrat, may not be fit to serve.

"New Jersey voters cannot forget how we have become the butt of national jokes because of the behavior of our senator," Forrester said.

The candidates' debate also touched on issues vital to New Jersey voters, including Superfund cleanup sites, taxes, the war on terrorism, gun control, prescription drugs, and abortion.

However, the issue of ethics may be the most difficult for Torricelli to address.

"I've tried to give a full account of this and I've apologized for it," said Torricelli. "Mr. Forrester wants the allegations to dominate the campaign because he does not want the voters to hear his record on abortion rights, gun control and the environment."

But Forrester suggested that even aside from ethics questions, Torricelli hasn't served his constituents very well. "Torricelli is supposed to be this fighter for the people, but New Jersey ranks near the bottom in tax money returned to the state," Forrester said.

According to one political analyst, Forrester won the debate, simply by standing his ground.

"By hanging in, Forrester won in the sense that he didn't lose it," said David Rebovich, and associate professor of political science and a managing director of The Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. "Torricelli seemed branded by the ethics question, and he did not seem quite as confident because of it," Rebovich added.

In July, the Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" Torricelli for accepting and failing to disclose gifts from political contributor David Chang, who is currently serving an 18-month prison term for making illegal campaign donations.

Even though recent polls give Forrester the lead, analysts say he's no shoo-in.

"Forrester may still have problems within his own party," said Rebovich. "He will have to do a little dancing since conservatives are not yet in his corner due to his positions on gun control, abortion, and taxes. He will still find it difficult to win unless he can bring all sides of the New Jersey GOP together."

There has not been a Republican senator from New Jersey since the 1970s.

Rebovich also offered insight as to what the candidates need to do next.

"Torricelli won't be able to duck the ethics questions, so he'll have to press Forrester on his positions," Rebovich said. Forrester is still an unknown to Jersey voters, and he must become more fluent in foreign policy and show he will fight for New Jersey first."

Trouble erupted before the debate, when Green Party candidate Ted Glick tried to enter the television studio to take part. He had not been invited to attend. Police arrested him and charged him with disorderly conduct.