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Corzine Set to Run for Governor

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) is expected to announce a gubernatorial bid shortly after Thanksgiving, setting off a scramble among ambitious Garden State Democrats angling for his seat.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) last week endorsed the appointment of Rep. Bob Menendez (D) to succeed Corzine, should he be elected governor in November 2005.

“He’ll have a number of qualified people to choose from,” Rothman said. “I think first on the list should be Bob Menendez.”

Should he become governor, Corzine will get to pick his successor for the final year of his term. Rothman, who was spotted huddling with Corzine just off the Senate floor last Wednesday, admitted he wouldn’t mind spending more time on that side of the Capitol eventually.

“Someday, I think I’d like to serve in the United States Senate,” he said.

The race to succeed Corzine technically wouldn’t begin until he wins the governor’s race next November — if defeated, Corzine would likely stay in the Senate and run for re-election in 2006 — but several lawmakers are already positioning themselves. Some New Jersey Democrats are suggesting that an appointed Senator could face a primary in June 2006, barely five months into his or her tenure.

Menendez, who serves as House Democratic Caucus chairman, and Rep. Frank Pallone have long been considered most likely among the state’s seven Congressional Democrats to ascend to a Senate seat.

In October 2002, when Democrats were searching for a ballot replacement for then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D), both Menendez and Pallone were courted to run but eventually declined.

Now, Pallone has signaled strong interest in Corzine’s Senate seat. He said that he’s confident Corzine will run for governor and that he will make a strong candidate who will unify the Democratic Party.

“I’m very interested in it,” he said, adding, “I’ve been in Congress for 16 years and being a Senator isn’t that different. I’ve been active in many issues — environmental issues, health care issues — that impact the state as a whole.”

Rep. Robert Andrews (D) also isn’t ruling out the Senate seat and is considering running for governor as well. Andrews said he would make his decision “independent of what anyone else is doing.”

As for the Senate, he said: “I think every New Jersey Member would be interested.”

Menendez said last week that while he’s delighted to have won the early support of Rothman, speculation about the future is far too premature.

Menendez said that while he would certainly look at a Senate opportunity if it became available, many variables must fall into place. He said Corzine must first get in the gubernatorial race, win and a successor must be chosen.

“I am focused on positioning the House Democrats to achieve success in 2006 when we should be able to take advantage of history,” Menendez said, noting that trends give Democrats a good shot at winning seats in two years.

Menendez said there’s “nothing available” to look at beyond the House right now, but “if the opportunity opens itself up, at that time I will certainly be interested in considering it.”

The Caucus chairman currently boasts the largest war chest of any Garden State House Member. He had $1.9 million in the bank as of Oct. 13, compared with Andrews’ $1.3 million and Rothman’s $1.1 million. Pallone had about $900,000 in reserves.

While Corzine still held out the possibility of not running in a brief interview last week, his candidacy has been considered a foregone conclusion in Democratic circles for weeks. He said his decision would be announced in less than three weeks.

“I like to think,” he said of the deliberative process. “Instead of ready, fire, aim; it’s ready, aim, fire.”

Corzine deflected questions about who he would appoint to fill out the final year of his Senate term should he win the governor’s mansion, known as Drumthwacket.

Aware that picking one Member over the others for the Senate seat could be divisive, Corzine floated the prospect of appointing a caretaker to fill the seat for a year to allow for a wide-open primary.

Corzine said the decision on his replacement would be made under close consultation with Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who will succeed him as chairman the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I’m going to work with Chuck to find the best person,” he said.

The behind-the-scenes jockeying among Members is likely to intensify once Corzine makes his bid official.

“It’s all about running for Senator Corzine’s approval,” said one delegation Democratic source.

Acting Gov. Richard Codey (D), who last week took over for resigned Gov. Jim McGreevey (D), has not yet ruled out seeking a full term next year, a move that would likely pit him against Corzine in the Democratic primary.

It’s unclear how much of his personal fortune Corzine will be willing to spend in his bid for Drumthwacket. In 2000, he spent more than $60 million of his own money on the Senate race, including $37 million to win the primary against former Gov. Jim Florio. To finance his ongoing political operations while in the Senate, Corzine donated another $2.2 million out of his own wallet to his campaign committee the past four years.

Recent polling has shown Corzine trouncing Codey in a primary and handily defeating any Republican in the general election.

While Menendez, Pallone, Rothman and Andrews are most often mentioned for the Senate seat, other Democrats in the delegation are also not ruling out a run.

Rep. Donald Payne (D) called it a “natural thing” for Members of the state’s Congressional delegation to look to move up if and when there is a Senate opening.

“This is something you should consider,” Payne said, noting he has already been urged by local political leaders and labor unions to think about tossing his hat into the ring. “I think that it’s sort of natural political instinct to be interested in a higher office.”

Noting the brief five-month window between the time the Senate appointment would be made and the early June primary, Payne also said it is within the realm of possibility for the appointed Senator to face a challenge from another delegation Member.

“It will be interesting,” Payne acknowledged, adding that several Members have compelling reasons, geographic or otherwise, to run.

Rothman said he had no interest in challenging the appointed Senator in a primary.

“I can’t understand the circumstances under which I would primary any of my Democratic colleagues,” he said.

Rothman said a primary would only be destructive for the party and would “hurt our chances to hold that Senate seat.”

Meanwhile, a Menendez Senate bid would open up new opportunities within the Democratic Caucus, given that he holds the No. 3 leadership post. It is widely expected that Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Caucus vice chairman, would run to succeed him, but others might be interested including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.).

Beyond the top Caucus job, the vice chairmanship would invite competition from ambitious Members seeking to enter House leadership. In the mix are Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), John Larson (Conn.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.).

Erin Billings and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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