Would Clinton Prosecutor Fire Up GOP in NJ Senate Race?

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Now that he's completed his report on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals, federal independent counsel Robert Ray is free to turn his attention to politics -- specifically the New Jersey U.S. Senate seat that Democrat Robert Torricelli will defend this year.

Ray was barred by law from announcing a candidacy for any office while still the independent counsel. Now, as he considers whether to join an already crowded field of GOP candidates for the June 2 primary, the questions are -- Is it too late? Is he wanted by the New Jersey GOP? Can he win?

While Ray is keeping his plans quiet for now, he has been laying the foundation for a political candidacy for some time.

Ray attended a Monmouth County GOP event on Feb. 12, and spoke about the need for "new leadership with renewed energy." Ray also said he wished "to continue in public service."

A month earlier, Ray had informal meetings with state GOP leaders, including state Senator Joseph Kyrillos, the GOP party chairman. Kyrillos, like Ray, hails from Monmouth County, but Kyrillos has not spoken publicly about Ray possibly entering the race.

During this time, he has been closely watched by U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a Torricelli ally who has accused Ray of violating the spirit, if not the actual fact of the law pertaining to the office of independent counsel.

In a letter sent to Ray dated Feb. 22, Conyers stated his concern that Ray "was violating the laws which prohibit him from running for the nomination or as a candidate for election to a partisan political office."

A Feb. 28 letter sent to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals had Conyers expressing "serious concern" about reports that Ray "has been acting in reckless disregard of his duties."

Ray has answered each letter, insisting to Conyers that he has not violated the independent counsel statutes in any way.

The Republican field already includes five candidates. However, the five may not stand much of a chance against Torricelli, according to recent polling.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, not one of the five candidates in the field was within 19 percent of Torricelli, and only one, state Senator Diane Allen, held Torricelli under the 50 percent barrier.

"Votes for Ray may be hard to come by at first," according to David Rebovich, Associate Professor of Political Science & Managing Director at the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics.

"When you look at the political landscape and the current power base, you have to ask where he would get the votes from," Rebovich added.

"Ray might have a hard time gaining support this late into the primary when there are already five other candidates," said Rebovich. "Many leaders of the GOP have already begun pairing off with the current field [of candidates]."

As it stands now, state Senator John Matheussen has the backing of popular former Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, and some of former gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler's staff have joined the campaign of Assemblyman Guy Gregg. Others inside the state GOP view Ray as an "outsider."

But Rebovich believes a Ray candidacy could succeed anyway.

"While the state GOP may be fearful Ray would upset the apple cart, he may not need support. If he can gain a large segment of grass roots support, and depending on how negative the primary battle turns, he may be able to win in a crowded field," said Rebovich.

In addition, as one of those who investigated the Clinton scandals, Ray would pick up key conservative support. It was this support that put Schundler over the top in last year's gubernatorial primary.

Ray may also have an ally-in-waiting in President George W. Bush, whose job approval rating is at 77 percent in New Jersey according to a poll released Thursday.

"People usually don't vote for you if they don't know you, and hardly anyone in New Jersey knows the Republicans who are thinking about challenging Senator Torricelli," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute.

But Ray would enter a race with national name recognition and a record.

"It would be Law & Order Mr. Clean vs. Tainted Torricelli," said Rebovich, referring to the ethics allegations against Torricelli that U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White investigated before deciding not to prosecute.

Even the New York Times, in a Thursday editorial, said the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee "might as well disband if it fails to see the urgency of addressing the serious allegations of misconduct" on the part of Torricelli. The senator allegedly accepted expensive gifts from a Chinese businessman.

In terms of money, while Torricelli has already bankrolled a massive war chest for re-election, none of the other five candidates has one-tenth of Torricelli's available cash. Only millionaire businessman Doug Forrester will come close to matching Torricelli's funding.

As for a Ray candidacy, it "would expose the Republicans to defending the entire Clinton impeachment episode, an extraordinary waste of resources and time for which Mr. [Kenneth] Starr and Mr. Ray are responsible," said Torricelli's spokeswoman, Debra DeShong. "This would be a major distraction from what voters really want to hear about, which is tax relief, health care, and education."

Ray has until April 8 to formally declare his candidacy.