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Senate Jockeying Intensifies

With Jon Corzine (D) trading in his title of Senator for governor-elect of New Jersey, the formal jockeying to replace him accelerated Wednesday, as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus formally endorsed Rep. Bob Menendez (D) for the post.

Corzine will have the power to appoint his Senate successor once he is inaugurated as New Jersey’s chief executive on Jan. 17, but has been mum on his plans for succession during the duration of the gubernatorial campaign and in the hours since his election victory on Tuesday.

But New Jersey Representatives eager for Corzine’s appointment broke their silence Wednesday, with a vengeance.

“I’d like to say my own record of 31 years of service in New Jersey, my understanding of average New Jerseyans and my leadership in the House would make me a valuable addition to the U.S. Senate,” Menendez said in an interview.

All but one Member of the state’s Democratic delegation publicly expressed their interest in filling the remainder of Corzine’s Senate term.

Viewed by many as the frontrunner for the position, Menendez refused to make predictions about whether he will win Corzine’s nod. The Democratic Caucus chairman said flatly: “I’m not going to handicap my chances.”

But Menendez said he was feeling “surprisingly good” after the New Jersey Democratic victories, with sources saying the seven-term Member is about to junk his low profile and ramp up an active campaign to succeed Corzine.

One ace in Menendez’s deck could be his endorsement from the CHC, which penned a letter on his behalf to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), asking Schumer not to recruit another candidate into the race — namely New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey (D).

Corzine is the former chairman of the DSCC, and it would probably not go unnoticed by him and Democratic leaders that appointing Menendez and setting him up to win a full Senate term outright in 2006 could earn the Democratic Party goodwill among Latinos at a time when Republicans have made serious inroads with this potentially decisive voting bloc.

“His credentials are there,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus political action committee, in an interview. “He is the highest ranking Hispanic in Congress. If you look at his credentials, he’s done an outstanding job since he’s been here.”

Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), the only Garden State Member not publicly lobbying to succeed Corzine, also publicly weighed in on his fellow New Jerseyan’s behalf.

Rothman said he has been behind Menendez for the better part of the year, and on Wednesday was drafting a letter to prominent state and national Democrats laying out why he’s backing his friend for the job.

“I believe that Bob is not only the best candidate, but the most deserving,” Rothman said.

One of his possible selling points: Menendez has more money in the bank — $4 million — than any of his possible competitors.

Despite the drumbeat for Menendez on Capitol Hill, his fellow New Jersey Democrats were not discouraged, and ever eager to join in the competition.

Reps. Frank Pallone and Robert Andrews, who each had almost $2 million in cash on hand at the beginning of October, have both been raising money and actively pursuing the Corzine slot for some time, and have said they would run for the post if a caretaker is appointed.

Neither has ruled out taking on one of their colleagues in a Democratic primary if initially passed over by Corzine.

Pallone, the most public of all the New Jersey Members, said he has a good shot at getting the appointment and will continue to campaign for it.

“My chances are very good,” he said. “One of the things I keep saying is we have to be unified as a party and I think that Jon should make the appointment, choose somebody who is going to run in November. I think I’d be the best candidate. I think I can win in traditionally Republican areas.”

Top Senate Democrats declined to wade into the fray, with both Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Schumer leaving the decision-making to Corzine — at least publicly.

Reid said Wednesday afternoon that he and Corzine had been trading calls the past 12 hours, unable to connect, but that his effort was merely to congratulate the governor-elect.

The Minority Leader said he wants to leave the decision on the Senate appointment to Corzine, but will offer opinions of potential candidates if Corzine asks.

“If he asks my opinion, I’ll tell him what I think, but I’m going to stay out of it,” Reid said.

A source familiar with Reid’s thinking said the Minority Leader wants “more intel from Jersey politicos who know the state best,” given the volatile nature of politics in the Garden State.

Schumer said during a news conference Wednesday that he’ll be talking to Corzine soon, but that such conversations will occur “in private.” Any of the five House Members being talked about as appointments would be good Senators and any of the five could keep the seat in Democratic hands, he said.

As of Wednesday, Codey was maintaining the same position he has held all along: He hasn’t ruled out accepting a Corzine appointment or even seeking the seat on his own next year, but is inclined to serve out the remaining two years of his term as state Senate president, both for family-related and professional reasons.

Because Codey is acting governor, he did not have to resign his legislative post and remained Senate president. He will continue in this leadership position once Corzine is inaugurated.

One New Jersey official based in Trenton who is familiar with Codey’s thinking said the acting governor’s public statements are an accurate reflection of his feelings.

“He’s not playing a game,” this individual said. “He’s not sure if the U.S. Senate is compatible with the lifestyle he wants to lead.”

David Rebovich, managing director of The Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, is predicting that Corzine will appoint Menendez.

But he said there could be a push for Codey because some Democrats believe he matches up better with state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the likely Republican Senate nominee and son of former Gov. Tom Kean (R), who is still a popular figure in New Jersey.

Codey “is a sure winner, and they’re not so sure Congressmen Menendez could beat Kean. That’s the logic that’s being employed” by Democrats who favor Codey, Rebovich said.

Former Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) is not among those being considered for a caretaker appointment. “He did surface in the last week or so for Corzine, but he’s really been invisible here since his presidential run,” Rebovich said.

Political consultant Brad Lawrence, whose clients include Corzine and Menendez, said he expects the governor-elect to announce his replacement before being inaugurated on Jan. 17, even though he is not legally able to make the appointment until he is sworn in.

And Lawrence disputed the notion that Menendez does not stack up well against Kean Jr., as polling he has conducted tells a different story.

“We would argue that we match up better than anybody both in terms of [life] story, [policy] positions and political strengths,” Lawrence said.

Some Members might beg to differ.

Less vocal heretofore, but now apparently ready to throw their hats into the ring, are Democratic Reps. Rush Holt, Bill Pascrell and Donald Payne. Pascrell said that with the New Jersey gubernatorial election over, he’s going to seriously consider pursuing the post.

“I didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about it, make an announcement, during the campaign,” Pascrell said. “The election is over, now I will seriously think about it.”

Holt described his interest as “high” for the job and wouldn’t rule out running for Senate under any scenario — whether Corzine taps a caretaker or a viable Democrat.

Holt also said he believes his chances are solid, explaining that he has a strong record in Congress and is electable statewide. “My guess is there are about four or five us who are about equal, but no one knows.”

Paul Kane and Nicole Duran contributed to this report.

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