WASHINGTON - Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey ended his re-election campaign yesterday, saying the ethics troubles that have clung to him this year had threatened the Democrats' chances of retaining control of the Senate.
"I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate," Torricelli said in an emotional appearance at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J.
Fighting back tears, the normally pugnacious senator declared, "I can't be heard" in the campaign because his little-known Republican opponent, Douglas R. Forrester, has hammered away at the ethics allegations, making them the theme of the contest.
Torricelli's abrupt decision came as his once double-digit lead in the polls had turned into a double-digit deficit with five weeks until Election Day. He had been under rising pressure from Democratic leaders in New Jersey and Washington to step aside.
His exit set off a scramble to find a Democratic replacement to face Forrester. Party officials floated several names: former Sens. Bill Bradley and Frank R. Lautenberg, as well as Reps. Robert Menendez, Frank Pallone Jr. and Robert E. Andrews.
A legal battle is expected between state Democrats and Republicans over whether Democrats can substitute another candidate for Torricelli on the ballot.
The state's deadline for doing so was Sept. 16. Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, said he is asking the New Jersey Supreme Court for permission to put another name on the ballot. Republicans promised to fight that effort. McGreevey said Democrats would choose a candidate by Thursday.
New Jersey has emerged as a key state in the hard-fought contest for the Senate, which Democrats control by one seat.
Torricelli, 51, who is completing his first Senate term after 14 years in the House, cast his retreat as a personal sacrifice that was meant to serve the greater needs of his party.
"I could not stand the pain if any failing on my part would do damage to the things and the people that I have fought for all of my life," the senator said, his voice breaking with emotion.
The Senate Ethics Committee severely admonished Torricelli in July after investigating allegations that he had taken, and failed to disclose, lavish gifts from a businessman who is in prison for funneling illegal political donations to him. Torricelli has denied any wrongdoing.
The irony yesterday was that Democrats were cheered and Republicans embittered by the decision of Torricelli, one of his party's biggest fund-raisers, to drop his re-election bid.
Democratic strategists say they believe his exit from the contest in New Jersey - which has not elected a Republican to the Senate in 30 years - would deprive Republicans of a figure who, because of his ethics woes, had become an easy target.
Furthermore, the race in the notoriously expensive state threatened to sap resources from contests in such other Senate battlegrounds as Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota. A spokeswoman said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent $4 million since Sept. 1 buying advertising for Torricelli in the pricey New York and Philadelphia markets.
Republicans, who relished the idea of attacking Torricelli's credibility, denounced his move as a calculated effort by Democrats to engineer the election's outcome.
"The laws of the state of New Jersey do not contain a 'we-think-we're-going-to-lose-so-we-get-to-pick-someone-new' clause," Forrester said in a statement.
Democratic officials spent the day weighing their options. Congressional aides suggested that Bradley was not interested in running again. Campaign strategists said Lautenberg, whose personal wealth would allow him to finance his own race, would consider doing so.
Menendez, an accomplished fund-raiser, is thought to be the leading contender among House members. Aides to New Jersey Democrats said Menendez had not decided whether he is interested.
In recent weeks, Torricelli's poll numbers have steadily declined. The senator has tried and failed to switch the focus in the campaign from his conduct to such issues as health care, gun control and the environment.
"This is a political campaign devoid of all issues," Torricelli said, though he acknowledged that he had "made mistakes."
"I cannot talk about war and peace, or economic opportunity, or the environment, the sanctity of our Constitution - for the things that have guided my life, I can't be heard.
"My voice is not so important that it cannot be substituted," Torricelli said. "If I cannot be heard, then someone else must be heard."
Democratic strategists promised, now that Torricelli is out of the picture, to turn the campaign to issues they said Forrester had ignored in his zeal to attack Torricelli's credibility.
"In some ways we're lucky, because Forrester kind of set it up for us," said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"All he's had to say are negative things about Bob Torricelli. If we have a Democrat in the race that represents all the things that Torricelli represents in terms of policy, what's he going to say?"
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, suggested that Democrats benefited immensely from Torricelli's exit. "It's a real blow to Forrester in a sense because that issue was self-sustaining," Baker said of Torricelli's ethics troubles. "Now, he's really got to flesh himself out."
Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said: "This could easily save the Senate for the Democrats. This is a Democratic state, and the only reason why Forrester forged ahead was because they didn't want to elect a crook - that's it."
Despite Torricelli's fund-raising prowess and his efforts to focus on issues, he could not shift the spotlight from the ethics questions.
A federal investigation looked into allegations that a businessman, David Chang, showered Torricelli with money and gifts in return for political favors. But authorities ended their inquiry without filing criminal charges against the senator.
Still, the Ethics Committee rebuked Torricelli in July for taking gifts - including a grandfather clock, a big-screen TV set and expensive jewelry - from Chang while representing the businessman's interests in Congress and before foreign governments. The unsealing late last week of a Justice Department memo from May detailing Chang's allegations against Torricelli once again called attention to the senator's conduct.
Torricelli's planned retirement ends the congressional tenure of the senator known as "the Torch," a figure whose aggressive style and affinity for the media spotlight inspire as much grudging respect as they do outright bitterness.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said he welcomed Torricelli's decision and that "the outcome of this race is vitally important to the people of New Jersey and will play a critical role in determining whether Democrats maintain control of the U.S. Senate."
Torricelli said he made his decision after a meeting Sunday night with McGreevey as well as with the state's junior Democratic senator, Jon Corzine, and other state party officials. Democratic aides and strategists said Torricelli was feeling "pressure from all sides" to step aside.
Still, the move far from guarantees that Democrats will retain control of the Senate.
Although Republican incumbents in Arkansas and Colorado are considered highly vulnerable, strategists see Democrats in Missouri, South Dakota and Minnesota as facing tough fights.