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Dodd Tries to Shake It Off

After suffering through perhaps the worst week of his Senate career, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on Tuesday looked to cloak himself in normalcy and move beyond the political drama that has put his re-election in peril.

In beginning this week’s first full day of Senate business by chairing a hearing of his powerful committee, Dodd looked confident — probing witnesses, chatting with his fellow committee members, and seeming eager to talk with reporters after the session concluded.

Dodd bounced from Tuesday’s committee hearing to the Senate Democrats’ weekly policy luncheon to an afternoon floor speech on a noncontroversial bill. All the while, he appeared as though last week’s damaging news about his role in the payment of executive bonuses at American International Group never broke.

The five-term Senate Democrat said he harbors no hard feelings toward the White House, which briefly allowed him to take the fall over the AIG flap. Dodd was a key negotiator on the $787 billion economic stimulus bill that allowed the executive bonuses to go through and acknowledged that while he inserted the loophole, he did so at the behest of the Obama administration.

Dodd on Tuesday described his relationship with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as “very, very good,— explaining that the two spoke on Sunday about the White House’s fix for the credit markets as proposed on Monday. “Our staffs are working back and forth; we’ve got some meetings later this week — so it’s fine,— Dodd said.

Dodd may be fine with the White House, but he’s not necessarily fine back home, where public opinion polls show he has lost significant ground with voters. Complicating matters for the veteran Democrat: He’s in charge of the Senate committee handling major efforts to reverse the economic downturn.

Dodd’s political problems are compounded by news reports that he received a special mortgage deal from Countrywide Insurance even as home foreclosures continue to mount nationally, not to mention in his home state of Connecticut. Countrywide ended up in financial trouble before being purchased by Bank of America.

“I think that making those tough decisions, putting the nation first before his politics — before the politics of the Democratic Party — at the time shows that in fact he is going to have a great argument to make back in Connecticut,— Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said. “But having said that, when you make tough decisions and you spend down political capital, you need to rebuild it.—

In what would otherwise be a slam-dunk for re-election in Democratic-leaning Connecticut, Dodd is looking at his most competitive campaign since he came to the Senate almost 30 years ago. And it’s a far cry from his position just two years ago when he mounted a bid for his party’s presidential nomination, albeit unsuccessfully.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has already indicated that they plan to target Dodd in 2010, successfully recruiting former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) to challenge him. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Simmons in a statistical dead heat with Dodd, 43 percent to 42 percent, among 1,238 registered voters in the state.

Simmons, who served four terms in the House before being ousted in the Democratic wave of 2006, said Tuesday he planned to file his election paperwork within the next 24 hours. The Republican said the level of interest in his making the race is high, particularly because of Dodd’s role on the Banking Committee during the nation’s economic struggles.

“If he, for example, he had taken the gavel of the Foreign Relations Committee when Sen. [Joseph] Biden [D-Del.] became vice president, he could have shifted some of the attention away from himself,— Simmons said.

A source close to Dodd’s office dismissed the notion that the Connecticut Democrat was rocked by last week’s AIG flap, saying the Senator is more concerned with helping his constituents recover from economic hardship than helping himself withstand any political hardship.

In fact, he sees his chairmanship of Banking as an asset — if not a political asset, one he can use to benefit his constituents. Dodd’s schedule calls for two Banking hearings per week, and he plans to use them to push for an economic recovery.

“I think he’s rolling with the punches, and understands that people are angry by what they see going on in the economy,— said the source close to Dodd’s office.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) hosted Dodd in his 2nd district last week at the height of public outrage over AIG and conceded that his colleague has some work to do to rebuild his political standing back home.

Courtney said Dodd was well received at two events he attended with him on Friday. The Congressman said Dodd was upbeat and did not act like a politician on the ropes. Still, Courtney acknowledged that the road ahead is “challenging.—

“I still believe that there’s a latent feeling of goodwill toward him because people have known him for so long,— Courtney said. “I do think he needs to rediscover that connection by doing events along the lines of what we did Friday. … I do think he can put his head down and work his way through this.—

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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