(CNSNews.com) - Conservatives in New Jersey were dealt another major political blow Tuesday when former U.S. Independent Counsel Robert Ray dropped out of the state's U.S. Senate race, citing his inability to collect enough signatures on a nominating petition.
Five months ago, Republican Bret Schundler was trounced in the New Jersey governor's race after most of the Republican Party leaders in the state deserted him because they felt Schundler was too conservative.
Many conservatives had viewed Ray, who investigated the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals, as the Republican candidate with the best chance of ousting Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Torricelli in November. However, the grassroots support Ray hoped to generate after he announced his candidacy nearly three weeks ago never materialized.
"This race, though it lasted only 18 days, was an uphill climb from a standing start," said Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr in the investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1999.
Ray and Morris County Assemblyman Guy Gregg were the two recognized conservatives in the crowded field of GOP candidates battling for the Republican nomination. Gregg also withdrew Tuesday, citing a low level of support.
Ray said he didn't have enough time to put together an organization needed for the primary process, once his Clinton investigations wrapped up, but added that his candidacy "was worth trying, and I was honored to have done so."
He was unable to become a candidate any sooner because federal law prohibits a federal independent counsel from running for office while still in the investigative process.
Capitol Hill Democrats, including Torricelli and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) had accused Ray of violating the spirit, if not the actual fact of law, when he sent signals of his willingness to run for the Senate seat.
David Rebovich, Rider University Associate Professor of Political Science, says time was definitely not on Ray's side.
"In a low-interest primary where it seems the candidates will have a hard time getting voters' attention, organizational support matters," said Rebovich.
But in departing, Ray said there are other Republicans in the race to which voters can turn.
"As I have said before, there isn't a single candidate in the Republican field who wouldn't make a better senator than Bob Torricelli," Ray said. "I look forward to doing everything in my power to make certain that the next junior senator from New Jersey is a Republican. I remain firmly convinced that principled, ethical and trustworthy leadership is possible with a new U.S. senator for New Jersey," he said.
Four Republicans remain. Of the four, state Senator John Matheussen is the lone pro-life candidate.
While Ray did not mentioned whom he would endorse, Gregg said he would join the campaign of James Treffinger, considered the frontrunner.
Gregg was one of the more vocal Republicans supporting Schundler in the 2001 gubernatorial campaign. Tuesday, Gregg urged Republicans to avoid a repeat of last year's party infighting, which damaged Schundler's chances against the eventual winner, Democrat James McGreevey.
"We had a very divisive primary, and after the primary we were incapable of having 100 percent unity," Gregg said. "Every Republican in this state clearly doesn't want to see what happened last year."
Any attempt to unite the Republican candidates against Torricelli will fall short, according to Ken Snyder, Torricelli's campaign spokesman.
"His (Torricelli's) record on health care, tax control, and making college affordable will carry him in November," said Snyder. "He's an extremely hard worker for New Jersey. He's got a record that is unbeatable."