Larry Craig

Popkey: Otter has some logical options if Craig does resign

Two camps have formed on the question of which Republican will succeed Sen. Larry Craig should he resign.

One says Gov. Butch Otter has no logical option other than appointing Lt. Gov. Jim Risch to complete Craig's term and set Risch up to hold the seat for the GOP in 2008.

The second says Otter, who has little warmth for Risch, is looking for an excuse to appoint someone else. The leading alternative is Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

But Otter's independence and unpredictability make predictions dangerous. He just might pick a third name from his growing public list of candidates — 29 and counting. Or, Otter may have an undisclosed prospect tucked in the back pocket of his Wranglers.

There's one more wrinkle: The speculation could become irrelevant. Smart Republicans tell me there is serious talk of Craig reversing course. His return to Capitol Hill last week, his vague public statements, and his court appearance this coming Wednesday have many inferring Craig will decide to finish his term while battling his disorderly conduct conviction.

There's broad agreement, however, that if Craig resigns, Otter will act swiftly. Otter told me he's hoping to have his mind made up this week. "I will, hopefully, have that decision made so I can sleep at night," Otter said.

Otter can rest easy with Risch, the choice of least resistance. Risch had already assembled a campaign team in anticipation of Craig's retirement. Voters remain wowed by Risch's seven-month governorship in 2006. He has a personal fortune and can raise money like nobody else in the mix.

Much of the GOP establishment favors Risch, including U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. Crapo succeeded Risch as president pro tem of the Idaho Senate in 1989. Risch taught Crapo the power game over alcohol-free O'Doul's in Crapo's office, and they remain close.

Finally, in last year's race for lieutenant governor, Risch kicked likely 2008 Senate Democratic nominee Larry LaRocco from hell to breakfast, 58 percent to 39 percent.

But Risch, who wouldn't talk to me for this column, carries baggage. Otter is still stinging from Risch's aborted campaign to challenge him in the 2006 race for governor. Risch was preparing to remind voters of long-ago indiscretions, including a DUI and a divorce. Risch ultimately backed down, but Otter hasn't forgotten.

Risch also is guilty, at least by association, for press reports that Risch had the appointment locked up even before Craig announced on Sept. 1 his intent to resign. Otter was ticked, repeatedly saying he hadn't decided.

Enter Wasden, whose principal advantage — aside from being the anti-Risch — is his age, 49. Fifteen years younger than Risch, he could build the seniority it takes to amass power in the U.S. Senate.

Wasden told me he won't be bullied by talk of Risch spending millions in the May GOP primary if Otter names another senator. "I'm a man of modest means," Wasden said. "But we need to see what the governor does, and we'll just have to cross that bridge if we come to it."

Wasden's wife, Tracey, is more blunt. "Don't let anybody underestimate Lawrence's campaigning ability. No one works harder and goes more places than he goes. He's been the underdog before and won, and certainly he can do it again — if we have to. We're willing to work that hard."

Mrs. Wasden knows of what she speaks. A gifted campaigner, she helped him win the GOP nomination for attorney general in 2002. Wasden overcame opposition from business, including Associated General Contractors, Avista, Blue Cross, Boise Cascade, Idaho Power, Micron, Potlatch, Qwest, Simplot and Union Pacific.

Business is cool to Wasden because of the independent streak he's shown as the people's lawyer. He's battled Idaho Power and Micron. Big business doesn't like that. Make no mistake: Otter's ears are bent back by anti-Wasden interests.

So, what about a third person? The public list is largely a compilation of hopefuls without hope. But state Sen. John McGee of Caldwell and Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley are legitimate prospects.

Also interesting are those not on the list. These may include Sen. Brad Little of Emmett, former gubernatorial candidate Larry Eastland of Eagle, and William Myers, the Boise lawyer who was President's Bush's withdrawn pick for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Most provocative of all is Sandy Patano, Sen. Craig's longtime state director, who was urged to run for 1st District Congress last year but took a pass. Picking a woman would make history. It also would pay tribute to Craig's substantial legacy, which many regret has been unfairly soiled by four weeks of insanity.

If Otter goes by the book, it's Risch. Any other choice risks the embarrassment that befell former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne when he named Jack Riggs over Risch as lieutenant governor in 2001. Risch responded by dismantling Riggs in the 2002 primary. He could well repeat that performance in 2008.

But Gov. Otter is no by-the-book guy. He's contrary. If Craig resigns, we'll see how unconventional Otter can be when the stakes are sky high.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438