WASHINGTON - Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli's effort to convert himself from goat to hero by dropping his bid for a second term from New Jersey may in the end save his party's Senate majority. But it comes very late in the game, and if even it does, it won't save his own reputation.
The smarmy nature of Torricelli's televised self-execution, wherein he recited ad nauseum his contributions to the Republic and cast himself as a political martyr, could not obscure the unethical behavior that forced his hand.
With the Democrats holding the Senate by a single vote, the loss of the New Jersey seat could well produce what Torricelli feared. That outcome no doubt would be a particularly bitter blow to him, having been a chief architect of the Senate takeover by virtue of his tireless fund-raising as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2000 elections.
But there are 13 other Democratic Senate seats up for grabs on Nov. 5 and loss of any of the others could yield the same result. So Torricelli's noble declaration that "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate" was a tad presumptuous.
Not that he didn't have reason to believe he was a dead duck or, as he put it, that his Senate seat "could be in jeopardy." An Eagleton Institute poll at Rutgers showed him going from 14 percentage points ahead of obscure Republican nominee Douglas Forrester in June to 13 behind last week.
But his assumption that by abandoning his re-election bid he is solving the problem does not allow for the possibility that New Jersey voters could be so disgusted with his transparent grasp for nobility in quitting the race that they could take their feelings out on his party on election day.
Torricelli also left the state Democratic Party facing a sticky problem of having to go to court to get his name off the ballot and hurriedly finding a replacement who could win against the no-longer-obscure Forrester, in a mere five-week campaign. In a particularly graceless remark, Torricelli flatly said on the way out the door: "Doug Forrester does not belong in the United States Senate."
By casting himself as a martyr, perhaps Torricelli thought he could present a plausible rationale for failing to emulate his proclaimed hero, Bill Clinton, in never folding in the face of his impeachment trial. The senator reported that Clinton had called him and tried to talk him out of going over the side, but that he told the former president it was a far, far better thing that he bail out. "I apologize to Bill Clinton that I did not have his strength," he wailed.
In lamenting his plight, Torricelli observed: "This is a political campaign devoid of all issues." By that he meant the matters on which he had hoped to win re-election - his record in support of abortion rights, environmental protection, gun control and the rest could not get through for all the clamor about his ethics.
But he was wrong. One issue remained: the Senate's rebuke of him after investigating his relationship with a convicted influence-buyer, David Chang, for which he apologized while still proclaiming his innocence. Forrester and the Republican Party made sure that the issue survived by repeatedly declaring that New Jersey deserved a senator they could trust.
Torricelli could have saved his party from the start from having to consider going to court to remove his name from the ballot by resigning at once, so that Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey could appoint his replacement and thereby qualify him for next month's election. Instead, he chose to force his party to swap the headache of his own continued candidacy for a new one.
Now the question is whether Torricelli, thanks to his bad timing as well as his bad taste, may have so poisoned the well, not only by his ethical lapses but also by his self-proclaimed martyrdom, that no Democrat will be able to pick up the pieces in the short time remaining.