Expensive mud flies in US Senate campaigns

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The Independent Online
In New Jersey, the agonisings of Bob Dole over how nasty he should get with Bill Clinton seem almost quaint. Nothing Mr Dole might attempt is likely to match the sheer beastliness of the Senate race under way here.

Waged almost entirely on the television airwaves, it is a match-up between a Democrat member of the House of Representatives (and recent boyfriend of Bianca Jagger), Bob Torricelli, and a Republican House member, Dick Zimmer. Each is spending millions - mostly on advertisements denigrating the other.

Indeed, the New Jersey Senate race is on course to become the most expensive in the country. For that reason, and also because of the quantity of mud involved, it is attracting wide national attention. But with Mr Torricelli ahead in polls by only a whisker, it may also prove crucial to the Democratic Party's hopes of retaking the Senate from the Republicans.

The fiercest attacks have come from Mr Zimmer. He has accused his opponent variously of fund-raising at the home of convicted mobster to assisting a fugitive. In turn, Mr Torricelli, 45, has accused Mr Zimmer, 52, of taking cash from a man linked to the Las Vegas mob and of dodging property taxes.

"It's so damn dirty, people are tuning out," notes David Rebovich, a political scientist at Rider University. "They've accused each other of being income tax evaders, influence pedlars and of being affiliated with the Mafia. What are voters supposed to think? One of them is going to be our senator."

Some of the voters indeed seem distressed. "It bothers me," says Bob MacLaughlin, a retired computer systems designer and a resident of Summit, a mostly Republican suburban enclave west of New York City. "The campaign is all 'you did, I did' and it gets really hard to see through the negativity to understand what is really happening." He is angered by Mr Zimmer's tactics especially and, though he is a registered Republican, will vote for Mr Torricelli.

Mr Zimmer attracted particular criticism for one television slot which featured a fake news broadcast with the news reader listing the various Mr Torricelli "scandals" as if they were genuine news stories. The Star Ledger newspaper of Newark decried the commercial as "an abomination".

On policy, the discourse has barely been more elevated. Mr Zimmer is trying to brand Mr Torricelli with the "L" word - liberal. This week his campaign will even launch a page on the World Wide Web about Mr Torricelli's alleged liberal record.

Mr Torricelli has meanwhile attempted to describe Mr Zimmer as a poodle of the unpopular House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, dedicated to slashing public assistance programmes like social security and Medicare. In truth, both candidates are moderates in their own parties. Mr Zimmer favours abortion rights for women, for instance, and Mr Torricelli is harsh on immigration issues.

Reflecting the wider significance of the contest, the Clinton campaign has promised to bring the President to Torricelli's side at rallies next week. Clinton is well ahead of Dole in the state, and his presence might help tip the Senate race to Torricelli.

The notion that the Senate might return to the Democrats is looking less far-fetched than a few weeks ago. With the balance 53 to 47 in the Republicans' favour, the Democrats are hoping to pick off three or four sitting Republicans. But it is critical that Mr Torricelli holds on here.