George Will

PRINCETON, N.J. -- New Jersey's governors work nearby in Trenton, but the governor's mansion, Drumthwacket, is here. Tom Kean Jr. was 13 when his father was elected governor in 1981 for the first of two terms. Today the son is 37 and might be crucial to Republicans' hopes for retaining control of the U.S. Senate.

To capture the Senate, Democrats must gain six seats. So, even if they defeat the five Republicans considered most vulnerable -- Montana's Conrad Burns, Missouri's Jim Talent, Ohio's Mike DeWine, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee -- they will need one more.

Perhaps Democratic Rep. Harold Ford, seeking the seat being vacated by Bill Frist's retirement, will become Tennessee's first black senator. That would give Democrats the Senate -- if they hold all their own seats.

But Republicans might take the one currently held by Maria Cantwell in Washington, or the one from which Minnesota's Mark Dayton is retiring. Or New Jersey's seat held by Robert Menendez, 52, who was in his seventh term as a congressman when he was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine to fill the vacancy created when Corzine resigned to serve as governor.

One of the four reasons Republicans think Kean can win is that appointed senators often are unimpressive candidates for election. Of the 54 other appointed senators in the last 50 years, 15 did not seek election, and 21 of the 39 who did were defeated.

A second reason is New Jersey's fragrant political culture. Menendez is the first Cuban-American Democrat to serve in Congress, where he was in the House Democratic leadership. He is the third Latino in the Senate (with Florida's freshman Republican Mel Martinez and Colorado's freshman Democrat Ken Salazar). But Menendez also is a product of New Jersey's very American Hudson County, where Boss Frank ("I am the law'') Hague ruled from 1917 to 1949 and gave New Jersey a political template.

On Oct. 15, 1982, a front-page headline in The Jersey Journal, the county's main newspaper, read: "No Hudson Officials Indicted Yesterday.'' Kean laughingly says that when he recently spoke outdoors in Hudson County, he was drowned out by convicts operating lawn mowers -- even though the grass had been cut two days before.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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