U.S. Sen. Larry Craig said Tuesday that he might reconsider his decision to resign if he clears his name in his arrest for disorderly conduct in a restroom sex scandal.
That's why Craig chose his words carefully during his resignation speech Saturday in Boise, according to a voice mail message he mistakenly left on a stranger's phone. In the message obtained by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Craig tells a man named "Billy" that his choice of language is deliberate because it leaves the door open for him to stay in office.
Craig made the call just minutes before his speech.
"We have reshaped my statement a little bit to say it is my intent to resign on Sept. 30," Craig said. "I think it is important for you to make as bold a statement as you are comfortable with this afternoon, and I would hope you could make it in front of the cameras. I think it would help drive the story that I'm willing to fight, that I've got quality people out there fighting in my defense, and that this thing could take a new turn or a new shape; it has that potential."
He said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., had encouraged him to fight.
The recording was offered for sale to the Idaho Statesman, which turned it down because the newspaper's ethics policy precludes it from paying for information from sources. A Roll Call editor said that publication wouldn't pay either, but it managed to obtain the recording without charge.
The voice is indeed Craig's, spokesman Dan Whiting said. Whiting would not say who "Billy" is. On Saturday, Craig announced that he had hired high-profile criminal defense lawyer Billy Martin to help him unravel the guilty plea he filed last month.
Whiting confirmed in an e-mail that his boss "intends to resign on Sept. 30. However, he is fighting these charges, and should he be cleared before then, he may, and I emphasize may, not resign."
Craig's move stunned even supporters. Most political insiders believed Craig had finally gotten the message from national Republican leaders, who saw his guilty plea to a humiliating sex-related charge as a blemish on the party's reputation and its prospects for the 2008 election.
"We didn't know anything about this," said a spokesman for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who stood with Craig during the resignation announcement. Otter, a congressman until his election as governor last fall, will pick Craig's successor.
Craig's hedging may play poorly even among Idaho supporters who believe Craig was railroaded, observers said.
"I'm not sure how Idahoans will take it if they feel like they were misled by his statement on Saturday," said Jim Weatherby, a retired political scientist at Boise State University. "He was playing a word game, apparently, with us."
Albertson College of Idaho political science professor Jasper LiCalzi said Craig could put national Republicans, Otter and whoever was going to be the next senator in tough spots.
"I think that's going to get people even more upset," LiCalzi said.
When Craig was arrested June 11 in the Minneapolis airport, he hoped to keep the arrest quiet, so he didn't consult a lawyer and he never told family, friends or his staff or colleagues in the Senate about his subsequent guilty plea. An undercover police officer said Craig solicited sex from him.
By Saturday, though, he had hired two of Washington's best-known criminal defense lawyers: Stan Brand, who is known for defending lawmakers facing ethics charges, and Martin, whose most recent client was NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who pleaded guilty to dog-fighting charges last week.
Craig also retained one of the capital's top public-relations experts, Judy Smith, who handled press for Monica Lewinsky and more recently for U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat now the subject of a corruption probe.
And in a move that kicked off his public relations offensive Tuesday, two of his children went on ABC's "Good Morning America" to defend their father. They said they believed his version of events and his assertion that he is not gay. And they both said they thought their father had been abandoned by his own political party.
Craig was not in Washington Tuesday, the first day back for Congress after its summer recess. He will return before month's end, Whiting said, but it's unlikely to be this week. And Craig will have a farewell in the Senate, Whiting said.
In September, the Senate will take on several key issues: the war in Iraq, money for children's health insurance and several massive budget bills, including the Interior Department appropriations bill, which is filled iwth Idaho-related projects.
Craig's latest move surprised Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who told reporters earlier Tuesday that Republicans had moved swiftly to condemn Craig because he had pleaded guilty to a crime.
"I think this episode is over," said McConnell, R-Ky. "We'll have a new senator from Idaho, and we'll move on."
McConnell had no further comment Tuesday night.
For Craig, though, the voice mail shows he never considered the episode closed.
In the message, Craig mentions that he has the support of Specter, a backer whom Craig saw as pivotal for giving his efforts political legitimacy.
The day after Craig's resignation speech, Specter went on "Fox News Sunday." "I'd still like to see Senator Craig fight this case," Specter said. "He left himself some daylight, when he said he ‘intends' to resign in 30 days. I'd like to see Larry Craig go back to court, seek to withdraw his guilty plea and fight the case."
Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104.