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Craig Hires a Crisis Team; Otter Still Quiet

Sen. Larry Craig (R) announced Saturday that he intends to resign from the Senate on Sept. 30, but his subsequent moves showed there is still plenty of fight left in the Idaho conservative.

Over the weekend, Craig put in place a high-powered crisis management team, including D.C. attorney Billy Martin, communications expert Judy Smith of Impact Strategies and attorney Stan Brand, who will handle any Senate Ethics Committee investigation. Craig also hired Minneapolis attorney Tom Kelly.

The Senate Republican leadership last week asked the ethics panel to investigate Craig’s June arrest during a sting operation at a Minneapolis airport men’s room.

“What you’re seeing is an attempt to lift the cloud he’s been operating under,” Brand told Roll Call on Monday. “The politics kind of overtook the law.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on Sunday became the first Senator to come to Craig’s defense. “I’d still like to see Sen. Craig fight this case,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’d like to see Larry Craig go back to court, seek to withdraw his guilty plea and fight the case.”

Craig appears to be taking that advice to heart, but Brand said he expects the embattled Senator to leave the Senate on Sept. 30. “I take him at his word,” he said.

Brand added, “He hired me and Billy Martin to see if he can leave with his honor intact.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) has yet to name a replacement for Craig. Otter’s spokesman said Monday that no announcement was imminent. Idaho is considered solid GOP territory.

Republican insiders based in the Gem State said Otter, a former House member, was choosing from among Lt. Gov. Jim Risch (R) — who already has said he would run for Senate if Craig retired, and was seen as the heavy favorite to be tapped by the governor — Rep. Mike Simpson (R) and state Sen. Brad Little (R).

Although a bit of a rivalry exists between Otter and Risch, there are several politically advantageous reasons for the governor to appoint Risch to the Senate, foremost among them that Risch did the governor a favor when he chose to run for re-election as lieutenant governor last year even though he was serving as acting governor at the time of the November elections.

Risch was elevated to acting governor in the first half of 2006 when former Senator and then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) was appointed Interior secretary by President Bush.

Risch trounced ex-Rep. Larry LaRocco, the likely 2008 Democratic Senate nominee, in last year’s lieutenant governor’s race.

Otter is personally and professionally close to Little, whose father also was a respected state legislator. Meanwhile, Simpson showed up in Congress one term before Otter, and the two served together for the balance of the governor’s House tenure.

If Otter does appoint someone other than Risch, and that appointee decides to run for the seat outright in 2008, Greg Smith, a Republican pollster and former Craig staffer based in Boise, said the lieutenant governor would probably challenge that individual for the seat in the GOP primary, which is scheduled for late May.

“If someone other than Risch is appointed, then Risch would undoubtedly challenge him in primary — especially if it’s Little,” Smith said. “Not only has Risch made no bones about running for Senate, he’s adamant that he wants the job.”

LaRocco, who worked as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist after serving as an Idaho Congressman from 1990 to 1994, lost to Risch by 20 points in last year’s lieutenant governor’s race. He closed the second quarter of this year with $44,000 in his Senate campaign account.

Risch’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment late last week.

Some Republicans note that Otter might feel indebted to Simpson for supporting his 2006 gubernatorial bid and therefore might appoint him to the Senate. Simpson is known to be interested in advancing to the chamber at some point in his career.

Asked Friday if Simpson would accept a Senate appointment, his spokeswoman Nikki Watts replied, “That’s going to be a decision made by the governor and and my boss. We need someone who can hit the ground running and that’s obviously [Simpson]. He knows the appropriations process, he’s in his fifth term and could hit the ground running.”

Watts said if someone other than Simpson was appointed to replace Craig, the Congressman would almost certainly run for re-election in 2008 rather than challenge a sitting Republican Senator.

Freshman Rep. Bill Sali (R), who replaced Otter and is one of Idaho’s two House Members, is not considered a potential appointee to succeed Craig.

Sali has the conservative credentials. But his abrasive personality has rubbed many of his fellow Idaho Republicans the wrong way, and he barely squeaked by his Democratic opponent in last year’s election.

However, Simpson also might be a troublesome pick. Although he is well-liked in his Eastern Idaho 2nd district, his voting record is considered less than stellar by fiscal and social conservative activists — the Club for Growth last week released a statement urging Otter not to appoint Simpson to replace Craig even before Craig made any definitive statement about his political future.

Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik did not offer Otter any recommendations but signaled that the conservative, free-market-oriented activist group would actively oppose a Simpson appointment.

“It’s too early to tell [who should replace Craig.] But one thing is for certain: Mike Simpson is not the guy,” Soloveichik said.

Little, meanwhile, did not rule out the possibility that he would be receptive to a Senate appointment, although he said right now his thoughts are with Craig and his family, with whom he is very close.

“It’s pretty humbling,” Little said in a telephone interview, when told his name was being mentioned as a possible Senate appointee. “There’s quite a few people in the food chain above me, and it’s up to Butch. It’s nice that somebody thought I was remotely qualified.”

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