U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli is making it clear that he's eyeing the New Jersey governor's mansion next year.
"I am interested in running for governor," Torricelli told reporters in his first public comments on his intentions. "I believe it is a race that I would not only win, but more importantly can win by such a margin to return Democratic control to the Assembly and the state Senate."
Torricelli said he will run if he can prove that he can unite Democrats in the northern and southern parts of the state.
"The division between North and South, and other strains in the Democratic Party, are such that I fear another loss," he said, noting that Republicans have held the governor's seat for 16 of the past 20 years.
Torricelli said he spoke last week with Woodbridge Township, N.J. Mayor Jim McGreevey, the Democrat who nearly upset Gov. Christie Whitman in 1997. McGreevey has long appeared to be the leading contender for the Democratic nomination in 2001, when both parties vie to succeed the term-limited Whitman.
The senator described McGreevey as a friend but also said, "No one is entitled to be nominated for governor. It is something that is earned based on the strength of ideas and the confidence of the voters."
McGreevey said his campaign began five years ago and promised a primary fight against Torriccelli.
"I am intensely committed toward seeking the governor's office," McGreevey said.
With Whitman barred from seeking a third term and Republicans now offering no clear front-runner, Democrats point to Torricelli as their best chance to reclaim the governor's office. But party leaders say Torricelli's stature in the party - and his ability to raise campaign funds - make him the front-runner, despite McGreevey's years of ground work.
"You have to respect his candidacy. He's been on the scene for two decades, and he has a record as a prolific fund-raiser. Bob Torricelli is a well-respected candidate," state Democratic Party chairman Tom Giblin said.
Giblin said he will meet with Democratic county chairmen in the coming days to gauge support for Torricelli.
Many said Torricelli already enjoys the unofficial backing from all but a few of the county organizations.
But McGreevey contends that seeking the governor's post should be more than just padding for a politician's resume.
"The governor's office is not simply a matter of one person's ambitions or political interests. It ought not be about political gamesmanship," McGreevey said.
McGreevey also acknowledged that he and Torricelli spoke, but declined to say what was discussed or what, if anything, they agreed to do.
He also said published reports that Torricelli would offer him the Senate seat as a carrot to step aside were "offensive."
On Wednesday, Torricelli said he's interested in the governor's job because he's tired of fighting for incremental change and admires a governor's abiliy to "get things done."
He said he would be a progressive, activist governor, such as Gray Davis of California.
"I also give fair warning to the (state) Legislature: If I'm elected governor, hold onto your hats," Torricelli said.
Elected to the Senate in 1996 after 14 years in the House, Torricelli is leading his party's efforts to retake the Senate as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
He said he plans to hold that time-consuming post only until the end of this year and would not give up his Senate seat while running for governor. Torricelli's Senate term runs through 2002.