By Rich Zeoli

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — An ethically challenged Democrat under federal investigation. A Republican businessman storming the airwaves calling his opponent “crooked” and saying only an outsider can clean up the mess.

I’m talking about the 2002 race for United States Senator for New Jersey. Incumbent Democrat Senator Robert “The Torch” Torricelli was up for reelection against Republican businessman Douglas Forrester. As New Jersey voters returned from the shore after Labor Day and began focusing on the election, the Torch found himself losing to Forrester. He was under federal investigation for illegal campaign contributions.

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A surveillance video inside a North Jersey 7-Eleven convenience store showed the Senator intimidating millionaire David Chang who was cooperating with the feds. The Torch was seen chasing Chang around and out of the store.

The Democrats were headed for disaster.

So on Monday September 31, 2002, Torricelli held a news conference in the outer office of New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy to drop out of the race. He said, “I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate.” He also asked one of my favorite questions in the history of Jersey politics: “When did we become such an unforgiving people?”

Republicans rejoiced! After all, the ballots had already been printed. The election was a little over a month away. And New Jersey law was crystal clear on the issue. The Torch dropped out 36 days before the general election and the deadline to fill a vacancy was 51 days before the general election. Game. Set. Match.

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But hey, don’t let a little thing like the law stop Jersey Democrats from getting their way. They sued for the right to fill the vacancy and the case went before the New Jersey Supreme Court which ruled unanimously that in order for the people to have a say, a Democrat candidate must be on the ballot.

So they dragged retired former United States Senator Frank Lautenberg out of retirement and put him on the ballot. Without the ethical baggage of Torricelli, outsider businessman Forrester lost a lot of his momentum. Republicans tried to highlight just how corrupt the ballot switcheroo was but voters didn’t care. They liked Lautenberg. He was like a friendly grandfather. They knew him and it was just easier to go with the likable Democrat than to risk an untested Republican outsider.

Forrester, who once had a commanding lead over Torricelli, lost to Lautenberg by 10 points.

I can only wonder what Democrats are thinking of a May 11, 2016 Quinnipiac poll that has Hillary Clinton tied with Donald Trump in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Just as the FBI is gearing up to interview Mrs. Clinton over the whole email server issue. I wonder what Vice President Joe Biden is thinking. Oh right, good old “Uncle” Joe went on Good Morning America on May 12 and said that he “would have been the best President.”

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What’s that famous saying? The past is prologue.