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Senate Races in New Jersey and Pennsylvania Heat up as Election Day Nears

October 18, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And speaking of November 7th, Margaret Warner has our Choices ’06 look at two races for the United States Senate.

MARGARET WARNER: Tonight, we examine the Senate campaigns in neighboring states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In both, the incumbents — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — are in danger of losing their seats, and each is being challenged by the son of a well-regarded former governor.

In Pennsylvania, two-term Republican Senator Rick Santorum is fighting off a challenge from Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey, son of the late governor Robert Casey. And in New Jersey, Democratic Senator and former Congressman Robert Menendez, who was appointed in January, faces Republican State Senator Tom Kean, Jr., son of the former New Jersey governor and 9/11 Commission chairman, Tom Kean.

For an update on the two races, we turn to Carrie Budoff, a political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Tom Moran, a political columnist for the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

And welcome to you both. Carrie, in Pennsylvania, Senator Santorum has won twice before, but most of the polls show him at least five points behind. Why is he having trouble this time?

CARRIE BUDOFF, Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, I think there’s several reasons why he’s having so much trouble. One is that he, for the last six years, has been the spokesman for the Senate Republican majority, which was a fine thing until recently, in the last year or two, when, obviously, Republicans have really fallen out of favor with voters. He’s come to represent them.

And then on top of it, he’s very outspoken on a number of controversial issues. And throughout this race, he’s been out there, out front, almost to the right of the president, in terms of Iraq and defending the mission. He has been critical in some areas, but for the most part he’s saying we have to stay in Iraq and we actually have to look at this in a more broader term and look at this as a global war on terrorism.

And that kind of rhetoric is obviously at odds right now with where polls show voters, which is souring on the mission in Iraq. So he has just kind of found himself in a pretty tough situation for national reasons and his own reasons.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Tom Moran, in next-door New Jersey now, as we said, it’s the Democrat, Senator Menendez, who’s in trouble. Why is that?

TOM MORAN, New Jersey Star-Ledger: Well, Menendez is leading by three or four points, so I’m not sure he’s too much in trouble. That’s within the margin of error. But you would think, with New Jersey being such a Democratic state — we haven’t elected a Republican senator here since 1972 — that he wouldn’t be having so much trouble.

I mean, there are a couple of things at work there. One is that the Kean name is revered in this state, even more enhanced after the 9/11 Commission. And it was a relief to see bipartisan cooperation. That’s very appealing. And the son is trying to tap into that same spirit.

The other thing is, New Jersey is really suffering from corruption fatigue at this point. The Democratic governor had to resign two years ago. There have been a series of scandals since then. It just never stops. And Kean is trying to make this basically a referendum on ethics, like saying Menendez is part of the problem, and citing his own work in the state legislature as a leading voice in the effort to reform campaign finance rules.

Pa. Senate race looks 'to the past'

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let's look at a couple of these issues in more depth. And, Carrie, you said the Iraq war, of course, is the major issue in the Pennsylvania race. So let's look at this excerpt. We have a debate excerpt last week between Santorum and Casey. And Senator Santorum was asked whether negotiations with the insurgents in Iraq might help quell the violence there.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R), Pennsylvania: What we need to do is aggressively go after them and defeat them, because the fact that we have been out there aggressively going after them has kept this country safe for five years. That's one of the things that's seemingly overlooked every now and then, with respect to our success. We have not been attacked in five years. That's because we have been taking it to them. No wonder they want to negotiate.

BOB CASEY, JR., (D), Pennsylvania Senate Candidate: Well, Rick Santorum once again reiterated what his campaign has been about. It's been about more of the same. He is satisfied with where we are in Iraq. He's satisfied that this country is doing everything possible to protect our people from terrorism.

I don't agree. I think we not only need a new direction for America, we need new leadership when it comes to Iraq. One way to do that and one measure of accountability is to replace Don Rumsfeld. Rick Santorum think Mr. Rumsfeld is doing a fine job. I don't.

And if we're going to change the course in Iraq -- and I think he's talking now in the waning days of the campaign -- where was he in 2002 and '03 in the lead-up to this war? Didn't ask the tough questions, didn't exercise the kind of independent judgment that U.S. senators should.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: Two questions, two non-answers. He did not give any -- his answer to fixing the problem is to fire Don Rumsfeld, as if Don Rumsfeld is the issue here. Don Rumsfeld is the secretary of defense. He follows policy. He doesn't make policy.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Carrie, do they have a big difference between them on Iraq going forward, or is it mostly talking about the past and why was Santorum such a down-the-line vote with the president?

CARRIE BUDOFF: It is much more about the past. In terms of going forward, both candidates pose a timetable for withdrawal. With the exception of Bob Casey saying that the president should fire Don Rumsfeld, they're actually very much in line. They both say we need benchmarks. We can't pull out before the country is stable. And the discussion really has been about the past, in terms of what Mr. Casey has said.

Corruption charges in N.J. race

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Tom Moran, what about New Jersey? How is the Iraq war playing?

TOM MORAN: Well, it's very different, because Bob Menendez did vote with only 12 other U.S. senators to set a timetable to withdraw from Iraq, the Kerry amendment in the Senate. Tom Kean has called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign. He's supported the war all along.

A poll came out in, I think, late August, an independent poll, that showed, if it weren't for Iraq, Kean would be clobbering Menendez by 10 points. After that point, Kean's tone on Iraq sharpened. His criticism of the president sharpened. He sounds exactly like a Democrat when he criticizes how Bush has done there and, as I say, called for Rumsfeld's resignation.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Tom, I know you also mentioned, of course, corruption was the major point of counterattack by Kean against Senator Menendez in New Jersey. Let's look at this excerpt from a Kean-Menendez debate 10 days ago. It began with airing one of Kean's ads, and then each candidate was given a chance to respond.

TV AD NARRATOR: The Star-Ledger reports that Bob Menendez is under federal criminal investigation for steering $9 million in taxpayer money to a Hudson County group, then taking over $300,000 for himself. Watchdog groups say that it has the appearance of corruption.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), New Jersey: What's going on here is, when you're wrong on the war in Iraq, when you're wrong on privatizing Social Security, when you're wrong on voting against raising the minimum wage, when you voted six times against pushing stem cell research forward, then you have to play the politics of smear and personal destruction. This is the national game plan. It's what Karl Rove, who recently raised monies for Tom Kean, has told all of their Republican candidates to do.

TOM KEAN, JR., (R), New Jersey Senate Candidate: Come on, Bob. You can do better than this.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: And this is exactly what he's doing. He is so lockstep with the president that he can't tell New Jersey voters that, in fact, he will side with them instead of siding with the president, and so he has no other outlet to do but in these falsehoods.

TOM KEAN, JR.: My ad quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. These are facts. The voters of the state deserve to know they've got a senator that's under federal criminal investigation. For too long...

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: That's not true, Tom, and you keep saying it...

TOM KEAN, JR.: For far too long, we've had politicians...

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: ... and you're willing to perpetuate a lie.

TOM KEAN, JR.: ... of both parties...

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: You're willing to perpetuate a lie.

TOM KEAN, JR.: ... get taken out of courthouses with raincoats over their heads. We've had our state be the butt of jokes on David Letterman, on Jay Leno. I am not going to stand for that any longer.

I've been leading the fight to clean up corruption at every level of government that I've served. I will continue that fight in Washington, D.C., because you know what? That costs taxpayers in New Jersey money.

Ethics issue on the campaign trail

MARGARET WARNER: That was certainly an amiable exchange. Tom, is there anything in Senator Menendez's background that makes him particularly vulnerable on charges of corruption, or is this referring to what you had told us about earlier, that the Democrats in general have a problem in New Jersey?

TOM MORAN: Well, Menendez has had a long career in New Jersey. He's never been accused of a crime, never been cited for any ethical violations. But he has been a leading figure in Hudson County, which is full of corruption, and they're constantly bringing people in for taking envelopes full of cash.

So you can read it two different ways there. Menendez portrays himself as the guy in this terrible stew who has been trying to fix it. And it is true that he was a key witness in the prosecution of his own mentor many years ago, a guy named Mayor Musto in Union City. He had to wear a bulletproof vest to go testify because it was mob-connected.

And prosecutors, despite the attacks of Kean on that association, several federal prosecutors have come forward and said, no, Bob Menendez was a good guy in this.

The troublesome thing for Menendez, out of maybe four or five big charges against him, the only one that really seems to have some currency is the one cited in that ad, where he took his personal home and he rented it to a Head Start program run by a nonprofit group that he had helped get money.

Now, to call that, you know, taking federal money and putting it into your own pocket might be a stretch. The questions that prosecutors are curious about is, was the rent that Menendez charged this group inflated to hide what amounts to a bribery payment in return for his service in Washington?

MARGARET WARNER: So, Carrie...

TOM MORAN: So far, there's no hard evidence of that, though, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Sorry. So, Carrie, in Pennsylvania now, what is Santorum's major pushback issue against Casey? Is he also trying to use ethics and corruption or something else?

CARRIE BUDOFF: He is. He tried to take the ethics issue and throw it against Casey by highlighting his connections to fundraisers in the past who have either been under federal investigation or went to jail. It backfired a bit because he put up an ad that went a little bit too far.

And then after that, he has been trying to use a contrast between him and Casey by citing reports that Bob Casey isn't going to his day job as a state treasurer, that he's spending his time campaigning, and trying to contrast that with himself, saying, "I work all hours of the day and night, and you deserve, Pennsylvania, somebody who shows up to work everyday."

Differing campaign styles

MARGARET WARNER: Carrie, how different are these two men -- we just saw them a bit -- but in their campaign styles?

CARRIE BUDOFF: They're very different. Santorum is very -- he's often described as fiery, as a very good orator. He's a very good, spontaneous campaigner. Casey is much more scripted, much more disciplined. He sticks to the same stump speech. And Santorum has tried to use that against him.

Casey has just stuck to his message, and I think that's probably been one of his biggest strengths as to why he is ahead so far now, because he doesn't go off message no matter what the question is. It usually goes back to the fact that, look, Santorum has voted with President Bush 98 percent of the time, and that's pretty much working for him this time around.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom, what about in New Jersey? How different are Menendez and his opponent when they're not actually fighting with one another, as we saw there?

TOM MORAN: Yes, it degrades into the -- it's like bickering kindergartners at some point. You want to throw them both away.

Menendez is a lot smoother. He's been in politics a long time. He speaks, knows the issues better, I think it's fair to say. And he speaks more smoothly.

Kean, they'll put him in a press conference, and when the conference is over, Menendez will dive into the crowd of reporters and talk it over. Kean, they sort of whisk him away as though they're kind of worried he might blow something.

I'd say, on their ads, both of them have been negative. Kean started out and has been almost exclusively negative in his attack ads because of his strategy of highlighting the corruption problem. Menendez started out with some positive one and now has responded in kind to Kean.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, Tom, is there something distinctive or important about New Jersey that makes this Senate race of wider interest nationally, that has more import, even beyond who controls the Senate?

TOM MORAN: I don't think so. I think, you know, just the fact that it is Tom Kean's son gives it more national interest, because, while he's revered in New Jersey, I think he's popular everywhere. The father is trying to present this as, "My son is the kind of guy who will build bridges in a day when this country is increasingly polarized between left and right. Menendez will be a dependable leftie, and my son will make deals, and that's just what America needs."

MARGARET WARNER: And, Carrie, what about in Pennsylvania?

CARRIE BUDOFF: Well, I think this race has a big impact on the 2008 presidential campaign, because if Santorum loses, I think you'll see people looking to Pennsylvania as more of a blue state than it has been looked at in the past. I mean, we'll have a Democratic governor, a Democratic senator, and it might not be viewed as such a battleground any more because it's just turning more Democratic.

MARGARET WARNER: Carrie Budoff of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tom Moran, New Jersey Star-Ledger, thank you both.

CARRIE BUDOFF: Thank you.

TOM MORAN: You're welcome.