METUCHEN, N.J. - Beverly Sarnicola has watched over the past month as the Senate race in her state has turned upside-down in the most extraordinary of ways.
In a virtually unprecedented candidate swap three weeks ago - 36 days before Election Day - scandal-singed Democratic Sen. Robert G. Torricelli stepped out of the race and Democrats waged a successful legal battle to replace him on the ballot with retired 18-year Senate veteran Frank R. Lautenberg.
Republicans looked on with horror as the double-digit poll lead of their candidate, newcomer Douglas R. Forrester, quickly evaporated, and Lautenberg, 78, who some still think is a senator, moved ahead.
Voters will be outraged, political observers said. It's payback time at the polls.
But standing on Main Street at the Metuchen Country Fair on Saturday, Sarnicola, a 57-year-old registered Republican from Franklin Park, says she has gotten over all that. And apparently she's in good company in that regard.
"It wasn't Lautenberg's fault," says Sarnicola, an unemployed former housing counselor. "I've really put a lot of that behind me. To tell you the truth, in time, you forget."
Like many of the two dozen New Jersey voters interviewed here and around the state this weekend, Sarnicola now sees this year's Senate race - which gained national attention and notoriety for what some have dubbed "the switcheroo" - as just a typical contest. Voters say the maneuvering was bizarre, somewhat embarrassing and even unfair. But most say it won't affect their decision when they go to the polls Nov. 5.
That's important because now - only 15 days before Election Day in a state where more than half of the electorate is not registered with either party - is when the bulk of voters will decide whether the peculiar story behind the Senate race matters, whether the switcheroo is going to switch their votes.
In this politically divided but increasingly Democratic state, which has not elected a Republican senator for 30 years, all of this is good news for Lautenberg and his party: The stakes for this Senate race and a handful of other close ones around the country are high. Democrats control the chamber by only one seat, so any one race has the potential to turn the tide.
Both campaigns appear to have been energized. Democrats have rallied enthusiastically behind Lautenberg as if he had never left the Senate, while Republicans - motivated by a profound bitterness about the candidate swap - have mobilized more than usual, moved by a "we'll show them" attitude to do all they can for Forrester.
Recent polls have shown that a majority of New Jersey voters think the switch was unjust, but far fewer say it will affect their choice. An Oct. 7 Quinnipiac University poll showed voters agree, 54 percent to 40 percent, that swapping Lautenberg in was "unfair." But only 30 percent said it would prevent them from voting for Lautenberg.
Not a factor in choice
Edward F. Bradley, a 41-year-old stay-at-home dad in Bridgewater, is one of those voters for whom the swap isn't a deciding factor in whom he'll select. A registered Democrat, Bradley says he votes independently, and this year, neither party has his vote yet.
"I don't think it was right for them to allow Lautenberg to run because it's against the law," says Bradley as he watches his 8-year-old son Max's soccer game on a Saturday morning. "But it's not going to change who I think is the better candidate, or who should win."
That's a problem for Republican challenger Forrester, struggling to retool his campaign now that his opponent is no longer a politically embattled and generally disliked one-termer but a well-regarded and experienced former senator who is tanned, rested and still dapper after two years of semiretirement.
Forrester had made a successful campaign out of bashing Torricelli for his ethics troubles. Now, his fortunes depend largely on the outrage factor.
The Republican, who often refers to his opponent as "the Torricelli-Lautenberg machine," acknowledges that he can't count on voter disgust to win him this election.
"It's not clear" how the switch will play, Forrester said in an interview Friday. But he has had trouble finding another topic to be the fulcrum of his campaign. Recently, he has focused on painting Lautenberg as soft on national security issues.
Not surprisingly, anger about the swap appears to be most profound among Republicans, many of whom say they are more determined than ever to elect a GOP senator.
"I just think that the Democrats had a lot of nerve pulling Torricelli out just because they thought that they were going to lose," said Faye Sneeder, 57, of Basking Ridge, as she browsed in a calendar shop at the Bridgewater Mall. Sneeder is a registered Republican but does not usually follow politics closely and does not always vote.
This year, she will. "It's the principle of the thing," she says. "It's validating the impression that the country has of New Jersey, based on The Sopranos."
The switch also has charged the Democratic base. Party strategists were having a tough time mobilizing grass-roots support for Torricelli, a figure who never inspired much affection even within his party and whose appeal only waned as his ethics troubles persisted. With Lautenberg on the ticket, that problem has vanished, strategists say.
Most recent polls show Lautenberg with a small but growing lead over Forrester, and an MSNBC/Zogby poll last week showed Lautenberg leading Forrester by a wide margin - 48 percent to 36 percent.
Although his campaign has had to scramble to get up and running quickly, Lautenberg has taken to the trail with a certain swagger - the confidence of a candidate who has done this three times before.
Lautenberg is not technically an incumbent, but the mulitmillionaire founder of the data processing firm ADP is benefiting from the name recognition, powerful political connections and voting record that came from serving in the Senate for nearly two decades.
"I know it's been a short burst of time, but let me tell you, people catch on in a hurry," he says.
He acknowledges with a smile and a conspiratorial wink that some people think he's still in the Senate: "You can look at that two ways. A: You're not missed. B: You've done some good things that people know you for. Either way, it's OK with me."
Forrester, 49 and also a multimillionaire, is a newcomer to statewide politics. The former executive of a health benefit services company served as mayor of West Windsor.
Statewide contests in New Jersey are some of the most costly in the country because candidates must purchase television ads in two expensive media markets - New York and Philadelphia - to communicate with voters.
Democratic strategists have been limiting Lautenberg's exposure around the state, judging that their candidate - who tends to ramble when speaking in public - can rely on his reputation and record on such issues as gun control, environmental protection and abortion rights, as well as political advertising, to get his message out. They say his campaign and the Democratic Party will probably have spent about $10 million on the race by Election Day.
Forrester, who has $2.6 million on hand according to his most recent campaign filings, must pull ahead in the polls if he hopes to have financial help from the Republican Party to get his message out. He has repeatedly called for a series of debates, desperate to find a forum where he can draw contrasts between himself and his opponent.
Lautenberg has committed to only one of those, to be held three days before the election on a New York television station. Forrester resorted to guerrilla tactics Saturday, surprising Lautenberg at the Metuchen fair with two podiums and challenging him to a 20-minute debate in the middle of Main Street.
It is one way Forrester hopes to keep playing the outrage card right up to Election Day.