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Democrats Accelerate Effort to Aid Johnson

In what may be the strongest signal yet that Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) will run for re-election in 2008, at least seven of his Democratic Senate colleagues are organizing big-ticket fundraisers in the coming weeks to help him fill his campaign coffers as he continues to recover from emergency brain surgery.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and five other prominent Democratic Senators are hosting the D.C. events that begin Wednesday and run through March. Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) is organizing the Wednesday fundraiser in a private office at 101 Constitution Ave. NW, with Reid holding an event on Thursday at a private home on Capitol Hill.

“A number of Senators are holding fundraisers for Tim,” said Drey Samuelson, Johnson’s chief of staff. “We’ve been really touched by the outpouring of support from different Senators.”

Johnson continues to recover at The George Washington University Hospital, where he has been undergoing rehabilitation since suffering a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 13. The South Dakota Democrat is making major strides, and sources say he possibly could return to work part-time in the coming months.

In a statement from Johnson’s office Friday afternoon, Philip Marion, medical director for the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine at George Washington University Hospital, said Johnson “is actively making decisions about his health care and expressing his opinions about his daily activities. He continues to initiate more conversations and questions. His therapy now includes computer exercises and problem-solving activities.”

Samuelson said those close to the Senator are “encouraged by his recovery” and by the level of support shown by his fellow Senate Democrats for a possible 2008 campaign. Samuelson said Johnson’s staff has done little to solicit the financial help from Senators; rather, “most of them have offered on their own.”

“We are excited about the prospect of him running again, and we are doing everything we can so if he chooses to do that, he will be in an excellent position to do so,” Samuelson said. “We’ve gotten calls from different folks who said, ‘Anything we can to do to help, we’re happy to host a fundraiser for you.’”

A Democratic operative with ties to South Dakota politics said the upcoming rash of Johnson fundraisers is a clear indicator that he is preparing to run for re-election and that he understands he cannot afford to waste any time filling his campaign accounts. “This is essentially what Tim would be doing himself if he were able to,” the source said. “It is absolutely right to view this as a pretty strong signal to everyone that he is operating under the assumption he’s running for re-election.”

Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) kicked off the Johnson fundraising efforts earlier this month when he created a joint fundraising committee to allow him to raise money for his own re-election campaign while simultaneously collecting funds for his Midwestern Democratic colleague.

Baucus also is one of the seven Senators who will host an event on Johnson’s behalf in the coming weeks. The Montana Democrat is planning a luncheon on March 12 at The Monocle Restaurant to raise money for the two Senators’ joint fundraising committee, asking $5,000 per host, $2,500 per political action committee and $1,000 per person.

“Everyone who has ever met Tim Johnson knows what a great person and a national leader he is,” said Baucus’ top aide, Jim Messina. “True friends help when their friends need it, and Tim needs it.”

Indeed, Johnson could use the financial boost from his allies. As of Dec. 31, Johnson had just $629,000 in the bank — a relatively small sum in a state that easily could tilt to a Republican next cycle.

So far, no one has stepped in to challenge Johnson, but some well-known candidates could emerge, including Republican Gov. Mike Rounds. Rounds is almost a sure bet to run if Johnson opts out of a re-election bid, but the GOP governor’s candidacy is less clear if Johnson enters the race. On the Democratic side, Rep. Stephanie Herseth is a likely and formidable candidate if Johnson decides to sit it out.

Regardless, Democratic Senators clearly don’t want to take any chances, especially as they look to increase their narrow 51-49 seat hold on the Senate in 2008. In addition to the upcoming events hosted by Conrad, Reid, Schumer and Baucus, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.) also are putting together Johnson fundraisers.

“We are putting our full support behind Senator Tim Johnson and are urging senators and others to support his reelection bid,” Schumer said in a statement.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid, said his boss has made it clear he will do whatever is necessary to help Johnson as he recovers. “Everyone is extremely pleased with the fact that Sen. Johnson is progressing so well, and while he’s still away they are happy to do everything possible to make sure he can run a vigorous campaign when he returns.”

K Street Democrats said they will rally to the cause. “I think there is a strong level of support for Sen. Johnson, and people respect and appreciate his colleagues’ efforts to be helpful,” said Bruce Andrews, a Democratic lobbyist with Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Paul Equale, a Democratic consultant, said he will attend the Conrad event that will kick off the series of fundraisers. “There is a vast wellspring of affection for Tim Johnson in the Washington community,” he said.

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