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Menendez backed by N.J. Democrats on accusations

New Jersey has been here before. A senior U.S. senator's career hangs in the balance as he faces sharp questions about lavish gifts from a campaign donor.

New Jersey has been here before.

A senior U.S. senator's career hangs in the balance as he faces sharp questions about lavish gifts from a campaign donor.

But the political reactions to the scandal around former Sen. Robert Torricelli, who was forced to give up his reelection bid in 2002, and Sen. Robert Menendez, indicted on corruption charges last week, have been starkly different.

Fellow Democrats applied the pressure that pushed Torricelli over the political precipice, ending his career. In Menendez's case, though, support has flowed from all corners of the Democratic establishment, including fellow New Jersey Sen. Cory A. Booker; the two presumed front-runners for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 2017 - Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop - and every Democrat in New Jersey's congressional delegation.

The key difference, four party insiders said, is timing. The bottom fell out on Torricelli as he skidded toward Election Day, scaring Democrats with the prospect of turning over a safe Senate seat to Republicans for a six-year term. Menendez, by contrast, won't be on the ballot again until 2018, giving the party time to watch and wait.

Politicians are "very practical" around election time, said State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union). In the heat of a campaign, he said, "the focus is more toward not losing that seat as opposed to sticking behind that candidate."

Torricelli was "severely admonished" by the Senate ethics committee less than four months before Election Day for accepting a stereo and television from businessman David Chang, who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for making illegal contributions to Torricelli's 1996 campaign. By September, Torricelli had fallen 13 points behind.

Democrats are giving Menendez time to make his case, even though the accusations against him carry more severe consequences. He could face jail time if convicted of accepting bribes - in the form of private jet flights, stays at a luxurious hotel in Paris and a resort in the Dominican Republic, and more than $700,000 in campaign donations - in exchange for official actions to help a donor, South Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.

Both pleaded not guilty to corruption charges in federal court Thursday in Newark. Menendez has said he followed the law and has vowed to be vindicated.

His team has lined up support from lawmakers and constituents, such as advocates for Sandy victims and key voices in the Hispanic community and Jewish groups.

Menendez's staff has created a Twitter handle and website, both dubbed "I Stand With Bob."

On Thursday, as Menendez appeared in court, he blasted a video to thousands of supporters telling them, "Today is a difficult day, but it is far less difficult because I know I have done nothing wrong." Delivering the message in English and Spanish, he went on to highlight work on issues such as Sandy recovery, Iran sanctions, and autism awareness.

Political operatives see another motive in the campaign-style outreach: raising money. Menendez, like Torricelli before him, is among the least wealthy senators and will need help paying for an expensive legal fight. He is raising money through a legal-defense fund and the "I Stand With Bob" website.

Menendez, who was appointed to the Senate to fill the term vacated when Jon S. Corzine was elected governor, has survived scrutiny in the past.

In 1982, Menendez, then Union City's school board secretary, testified against his political mentor, Mayor William V. Musto, in a bribery case.

The episode resurfaced during his 2006 campaign against Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr., when Menendez cast himself as a corruption-buster who wore a bulletproof vest during the Musto trial because of death threats.

On Wednesday, Menendez said the episode demonstrated his integrity and commitment to public service.

"I began my political career 40 years ago fighting corruption in city government," he said during a raucous news conference in Newark. "This is not how my career is going to end."

In 2006, Kean tried to portray Menendez as an opportunist and reluctant government witness in the Musto case. Two months before the general election, word leaked that then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie was investigating Menendez over a lease agreement with a nonprofit.

The nonprofit, North Hudson Community Action Corp., paid landlord Menendez more than $300,000 over 8½ years between the mid-1990s to early 2000s to rent an office building in Union City.

During that time, as a member of the House, Menendez helped steer federal grants to the nonprofit.

Menendez dismissed Christie's investigation as politically motivated. He ultimately defeated Kean handily.

No charges were brought. In 2011, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who had taken over the inquiry, wrote Menendez a rare letter saying the case was closed.

Menendez's survival of that episode bolsters his case to the public that prosecutors have once again overstepped, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

"Menendez has been a strong supporter of a lot of people who've risen through the ranks," Murray said. "There's also a chance he's going to weather this. You don't want to be on the wrong side of him if he does."

Details of the federal investigation have leaked to the press over three years, and they haven't had a significant effect on Menendez's job approval ratings in New Jersey, Murray said.

His ratings dipped to a low of 44 percent approval to 38 percent disapproval a couple of years ago when anonymous tipsters fueled stories of Menendez's alleged solicitation of underage prostitutes - accusations that were never substantiated. They did, however, lead prosecutors to Menendez's relationship with Melgen.

Murray said he thought Menendez's approval ratings would drop further now, "but not to the point where he's going to be forced by public opinion to step down."

Few Republicans in Congress have called for his resignation, perhaps because of Menendez's hawkish views on Iran and Cuba. And Gov. Christie, who also has been criticized for accepting lavish gifts, has been circumspect, saying Menendez deserves the "presumption of innocence."

 856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman