WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig's hold on his job is growing increasingly tenuous as he loses the confidence of fellow Republicans, from President Bush to his colleagues in the Senate.
The three-term Idaho senator saw his clout and political support diminish by the hour Wednesday, as some colleagues called on him to step down and he gave up his senior role on several key committees. The growing controversy weakens his influence as a senator and calls into question how long he can fend off the growing clamor to resign, political experts say.
Two of Craig's Republican Senate colleagues, John McCain of Arizona and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, both called on Craig to resign, saying his guilty plea to a disorderly conduct charge after an undercover police officer said he solicited sex, making him unfit to serve as a U.S. senator.
"I think he should resign ... my opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime, then you shouldn't serve," McCain told CNN. "And that is not a moral stand. That is not a holier-than-thou. It is just a factual situation."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
He was echoed by Coleman, who called Craig's arrest and guilty plea "conduct unbecoming a senator."
And a spokesman for President Bush said the White House was "disappointed" in the senator's behavior.
"We hope that it will be resolved quickly because that will be in the best interest of the Senate and the people of Idaho," White House spokesman Alex Conant said.
Craig, a social conservative who opposes gay marriage, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after an undercover police officer said Craig tried to solicit sex from him while seated in an adjacent stall in a men's room June 11 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Craig managed to keep the arrest and conviction secret until Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, broke the news Monday afternoon.
An assault on one of their own
Republicans have increasingly distanced themselves from the Idaho senator. McCain is running for president, Coleman faces a tough re-election challenge, and Republicans nationwide are worried about how voters will react to another scandal involving Republicans.
Craig went on vacation Wednesday with his wife, according to aides. "Nothing has changed from his statement Tuesday," said Dan Whiting, Craig's communications director.
Craig found support from Gov. Butch Otter, a fellow Republican who has known him for 35 years.
Otter said he and first lady Lori Otter met with Craig and his wife, Suzanne, on Tuesday. "I told him, ‘Larry, I've made a few mistakes in my private life that slopped over into public news, and you're going to find out really quick who your friends are, but I want you to know that Lori and I are your friends,'" Otter said.
Otter is no stranger to public scrutiny, though not on the scale Craig is now experiencing. In 1992, when Otter was lieutenant governor, he was arrested for driving under the influence. Otter was convicted and stayed in office.
Otter declined to say whether Craig should quit. "I'm not going to go there," Otter said. "That's up to him."
Craig 'represents party'
Many Republicans said they are bothered by how Craig kept the matter secret for so long, without telling friends, family or Senate leaders.
Republicans began to turn on Craig as early as Monday, when Mitt Romney dropped him as the Senate co-chair of his presidential campaign.
Matters got worse Tuesday when Senate leaders called for an ethics investigation into Craig's actions.
The news came as he was about to begin a news conference in Idaho in which he said he hadn't done anything inappropriate, and that he was the subject of an Idaho Statesman "witch hunt" investigating his sexual orientation.
By late Wednesday, Craig had been asked to give up his leadership posts on Senate committees.
McCain, Coleman and U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich, called on him to give up his Senate seat, as did the leaders of conservative political movements inside and outside Idaho. By day's end Wednesday, other House Republicans had joined calls for Craig's resignation, including Ginny Brown-Waite and Jeff Miller of Florida.
Craig "represents the Republican Party," Hoekstra said.
The scandal adds to a roster of ethical and corruption problems involving Republicans, beginning last summer with revelations about former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate contact with House pages, and continuing to the FBI raid this summer on the Alaska home of Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
"There's the potential for a cumulative effect, and that's going back to last fall to the previous scandals," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "There's an expectation that leaders, especially those that espouse family values, will live by those.
"Voters don't expect perfection, but they want integrity."
Democrats stay out of it
Craig has spoken several times since Monday with Senate Republican leaders, including on Wednesday when they asked him to give up his committee leadership posts.
"This is not a decision we take lightly, but we believe this is in the best interest of the Senate until this situation is resolved by the Ethics Committee," said Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and four other Senate leaders.
Craig "was willing to step aside for the sake of the party," Whiting said.
For the most part, Democrats avoided involvement.
"We at least ought to hear his side of the story," said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a presidential contender who spoke on CNN.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said his party stood to gain: "All of these people who (are) holier than thou are now under investigations. … I think the Republican Party will find itself in a great peril next year."
Craig's power reduced
As the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, an appropriations subcommittee on the interior, and the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Craig got staff and a voice in setting the agenda of the panels.
The loss of the committee leadership dramatically reduces Craig's ability to use his influence to serve Idaho, said Albertson College of Idaho professor Jasper LiCalzi. That could get even Idaho Republicans to join the call for him to step down, said LiCalzi, a professor of political economy.
Craig might be thinking he can hold out a week or two. But in the end, the most important pressure comes from Washington Republicans worried the scandal will hurt them in the 2008 election.
"Maybe it takes a call from the president or the White House to get him to leave," LiCalzi said.
Pollster says scandal could dissipate
The momentum is building against Craig, said John Freemuth, political science professor at Boise State University.
"I'm surprised at the speed of this," Freemuth said.
But party leaders remember that in the 2006 scandal that forced Rep. Mark Foley to resign, House leaders were criticized for not acting quickly enough, LiCalzi said.
"At this rate we may know something quickly," Freemuth said.
Greg Smith, a pollster who used to work in Craig's Senate office, said that if the lawmaker survives the next three to five days, the scandal would eventually dissipate.
"After that, there will be some degree of damage,: Smith said. "It's certainly not terminal."
Idaho Statesman reporters Rocky Barker and Ken Dey; McClatchy Washington bureau reporters Lisa Zagaroli, Margaret Talev and Lesley Clark; The Washington Post; and the Associated Press contributed to this report.