Larry Craig is going to fight for his job — a classic Craig response to adversity — but the fight may be uphill.
Already, some powerful friends are raising public questions about the veteran Idaho U.S. senator's conduct, casting doubt on his future in politics.
Craig "disappointed the American people," Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Tuesday. And Senate Republican leaders called Craig's disorderly conduct plea in connection with an airport restroom incident a "serious matter" that needs the Senate Ethics Committee's review.
But Craig said the only thing he did wrong was to plead guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct after an encounter with an undercover police officer in a men's room at a Minneapolis airport June 11. He blamed his decision not to fight the charges on a "witch hunt" by the Idaho Statesman as the newspaper investigated rumors that Craig had engaged in homosexual conduct.
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"Let me be clear: I am not gay and never have been gay," Craig told reporters at a Downtown news conference with his wife, Suzanne, at his side. "I overreacted in Minneapolis because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman's investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho."
A police officer said Craig made a sexual advance as the two men sat in adjacent stalls in the men's room. The encounter was similar to an allegation of an incident in a Washington, D.C., railroad station, described by a Washington-area man to the Idaho Statesman and reported in Tuesday's editions.
Managing Editor Bill Manny defended the Statesman's reporting.
"As our story demonstrated, we followed leads and asked questions," Manny said. "We worked hard and behaved responsibly, not publishing a story until it was ready. We didn't print anything until the senator pleaded guilty."
Craig said he has hired a lawyer to review his plea and advise him how to proceed.
Craig faces a "significant uphill battle" if he tries to change his guilty plea, said Steve Simon, a University of Minnesota law professor. Even if he succeeds, he could face a second, more serious charge that was dropped when he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
The dropped charge — interference with privacy — is a "euphemism for window peepers" and carries a stiffer sentence than disorderly conduct, Simon said.
News of the arrest prompted a political crisis for the 62-year-old conservative, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1980 and won his Senate seat in 1990. Commentators from Democratic operative James Carville to conservative radio and Fox TV host Sean Hannity questioned Craig's behavior.
The most serious development Tuesday was the call for a Senate ethics probe by the leaders of his own party.
"Due to the reported and disputed circumstances, and the legal resolution of this serious case, we will recommend that Sen. Craig's incident be reported to the Senate Ethics Committee for its review," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday afternoon. "In the meantime, (Senate leaders are) examining other aspects of the case to determine if additional action is required."
Another ethics scandal is the last thing congressional GOP leaders want. Romney said Tuesday on CNBC's "Kudlow & Co." that the scandal reminds him of former House member Mark Foley, who resigned in a sex scandal almost a year ago, and of Bill Clinton, who was impeached for lying about an affair with a White House aide. Until Monday, Craig was co-chair of the Senate campaign committee for Romney.
"I think it reminds us of the fact that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint, and they somehow think that if they vote the right way on issues of significance or they can speak a good game, that we'll just forgive and forget," Romney said.
In his news conference, Craig offered no details about what happened in the men's room, but his defiance was characteristic: When attacked, come out swinging.
He did not rule out running for re-election Tuesday. If he won and finished a fourth term, he would become the longest-serving Idahoan ever in Congress.
Idaho Republicans either stood with Craig or were silent.
"Larry Craig has been a stalwart in supporting Idaho and ensuring that the needs of Idaho citizens have been well-represented at the highest levels of our nation's government," said J. Kirk Sullivan, Idaho GOP chairman. "Until the facts of this situation are made clear, I would encourage all Idahoans to avoid rushing to judgment and making brash statements about a man who has dedicated his life to public service."
Sen. Mike Crapo said he had talked to Craig and stands by him. "I take him at his word," Crapo said.
But Republican Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali had nothing to say publicly. Gov. Butch Otter said he wanted to talk to Craig before commenting, Otter's press secretary said.
Bryan Fischer of the Idaho Values Alliance said Craig's news conference was not persuasive. "That makes me believe his guilty plea represents an acknowledgement he was engaged in inappropriate conduct," he said.
Fischer said Craig should resign.
But Idahoans won't decide Craig's fate unless he decides to run again, said Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at Albertson College of Idaho.
"If he's not going to finish his term, it's going to be because of pressure from national Republicans calling for him to resign for the good of the party," LiCalzi said.
Greg Hahn, Bill Roberts and Erika Bolstad contributed to this story.
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