Lautenberg Senate campaign short and sweet

October 25, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WHIPPANY, N.J. -- At an early morning seminar the other day called "Operation Medical Awareness," Republican senatorial nominee Douglas Forrester moved among seniors munching on breakfast pastries, introducing himself and exchanging pleasantries.

Some recognized him after the flood of recent publicity over "the switch" -- the Democratic substitution of former Sen. Frank Lautenberg for withdrawn Sen. Bob Torricelli -- to be his opponent on Nov. 5. Many, however, seemed not to.

Shortly afterward, when Mr. Lautenberg entered the ballroom, the contrast was sharp. Seniors cheered and applauded as he strode to the microphone and immediately struck a responsive chord with the audience. "We have something in common," said the 78-year-old Democrat.

The crowd laughed, needing no explanation, and laughed again when he told of another senior chiding him that he was "older than Jack Benny."

Mr. Lautenberg plunged into selling himself as a defender of Social Security, without reference to Mr. Forrester, who is the subject of Lautenberg ads accusing him of wanting to "privatize" the federal retirement system by permitting individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market.

Instead, he just told them he understood that "the problems and interests of the senior community can't be ignored," and that they had the power to make sure they weren't, by voting. "Life can be beautiful, if you feel good," he said, and that was why it was imperative that they have "affordable" prescription drugs.

In his 18 years in the Senate, he said, "they didn't choose me as the poster boy [of health care] because I'm 48. ... Well, 58, what's the difference?" he asked, to more laughter from members of his generation.

The scene here encapsulated the challenge facing Mr. Forrester and the advantages of Mr. Lautenberg, and not only among senior voters, in what Mr. Lautenberg calls the "short cycle" of this newly defined contest, abbreviated by "the switch."

Mr. Forrester, robbed of the easy target of the beleaguered Mr. Torricelli and having spent much of his campaign treasury pummeling him, has had to readjust his sights quickly against the personable and well-regarded former three-term senator with a personal fortune to burn.

Even as Mr. Forrester has benefited from heavy news media publicity as the victim of "the switch" and attacked "the party bosses" who engineered it, it may not be nearly enough to cut Mr. Lautenberg down to size in the little more than a week left before Election Day.

As if Mr. Forrester didn't have a hill high enough to climb, his wife inadvertently tipped off a local reporter to a host of small-town newspaper columns he wrote some years ago that have yielded much fodder for Lautenberg attacks. They included pointed unconcern about assault weapons, opposition to roadblocks to catch drunken drivers and even criticism of Atlantic City for the quality of its ocean waters.

Thrown on the defensive with time running out, Mr. Forrester has tried to counter-punch by pointing out that Mr. Lautenberg voted against the authorizing resolution for the Persian Gulf war and accusing him of waffling on President Bush's aggressive posture toward Iraq. But Mr. Lautenberg has been a moving target, limiting his public appearances and agreeing to only two televised debates before Nov. 5.

With the Republicans needing only one net pickup to regain control of the Senate, Mr. Forrester marches in lockstep with Mr. Bush. But Mr. Lautenberg says the issue of Senate control is a bit "arcane" as a voting issue, and needs spelling out in terms of such matters as selection of judges.

As for the "short cycle," he jokes that "maybe we can serve as a model for the future." Campaigns are too long anyway, he suggests, and this way "you don't wear out the public and you don't wear out your friends" helping you.

That's a philosophical outlook Mr. Forrester can hardly afford, however, as the clock ticks down and Mr. Lautenberg's lead, 52 percent to 43 percent in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, keeps creeping up.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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