Larry Craig

Risch or Wasden? Otter's dilemma

Thursday was a good day for Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, Idaho's senator wannabe in waiting.

In the morning, Larry Craig's staff put a different spin on the senior senator's ever-changing career plans, saying it was unlikely Craig would fight to keep his Senate job. Smart positioning by the Craig team. The senator's "intent to resign" shuck and jive really didn't play well at home or with Capitol Hill Republicans.

A few hours later, Rep. Mike Simpson pulled his name out of the running. Smart call by Simpson, a guy who usually makes shrewd political moves. Simpson is safe in his 2nd Congressional District seat, has built up allies and five terms of seniority — and perhaps most importantly for Idaho, he has a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Idaho's new senator basically has no shot at inheriting Craig's old Senate Appropriations seat, so if Simpson were to switch houses, Idaho would go from two appropriations seats to none.

Props to Simpson for recognizing a rotten trade when he sees one.

So do Thursday's developments make a Risch appointment as inevitable as, dare I say it, a Craig resignation? Not necessarily.

Risch certainly looks like Gov. Butch Otter's odds-on choice. His odds improve even more with Simpson out of the running — since Simpson's nine years of Capitol Hill experience was an attribute Risch simply doesn't have on his resume.

Now, in theory, Risch looks like a logical appointment. He has a career of public service, though all of his experience and expertise is at the state level. His seven-month stint as governor shows that he wouldn't sit on his hands during the remainder of Craig's term. Risch is obviously a motivated buyer; he has for months said he would run for Senate in 2008 if Craig didn't, and Risch has proven he can win a statewide election.

Simple? Well, here's where it gets more complicated for Otter. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is interested — and an interesting option. Wasden may not have Risch's enthusiastic appetite for campaigning, but the soft-spoken Wasden has won statewide races himself. Like Risch, Wasden possesses a sharp legal mind that would serve him well in the nitty-gritty work of lawmaking. And Wasden has demonstrated enough of an independent streak to sign onto an antitrust lawsuit against Micron Technology and other chip manufacturers, and the populist streak to make consumer protection a priority on the job.

This isn't an easy call for Otter since he has two qualified candidates who clearly are interested in the job for the long haul. Choosing one over the other gives the appointee a big edge heading into a 2008 election. And since politics is personal, choosing one over the other will, at best, bruise someone's ego.

Little wonder, then, that Otter is considering the idea of naming a placeholder who would simply keep the job for the remainder of Craig's term. Idaho could lose some Senate seniority in the process — but it also allows Otter to avoid a sticky decision. Former attorney general and Lt. Gov. David Leroy is positioning himself for a possible caretaker appointment.

On Saturday, minutes after Craig's announced his plans to resign, Otter wanted to say as little as possible about the Senate vacancy. He groused about early media reports that suggested Risch was his choice, and walked briskly away from reporters looking for details. He looked like a man in a big hurry — and a guy with an unwanted decision on his plate.

Otter was more open Wednesday, holding court for 20 minutes with reporters asking about the Senate vacancy. Still, this can't be an easy call for the governor. With two qualified candidates and prominent fellow Republicans interested in launching a Senate career, it shouldn't be a surprise if Otter is a reluctant kingmaker.

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