Larry Craig

Popkey: For Larry Craig, ‘for now’ might mean ‘until January 2009’

On Sept. 1, Sen. Larry Craig told Idaho and the world he intended to resign Sept. 30. That's today. Instead, Craig says he plans to stay "for now."

What does "for now" mean?

Craig has weathered pressure to quit, including a pending Senate ethics inquiry, shunning by national Republican leaders and the stripping of his senior status on committees, the key to his power.

Craig survived and returned to the Senate two weeks ago. Now, Idaho Republican leaders tell me they've come to believe Craig will likely complete his term in January 2009.

" ‘For now' is permanent," said one. "He ain't leaving."

The strategy that keeps Craig in the Senate depends on legal maneuvers to set aside his guilty plea for disorderly conduct in a Minnesota airport men's room in June.

Craig says he wants to clear his name. That's ambitious for a man who's become a punch line. A more attainable goal will be Craig saying he didn't resign in disgrace in the face of allegations of lewd conduct.

Craig has about $500,000 in the bank for his 2008 re-election campaign. He is authorized to use that to pay lawyers.

On Wednesday, Craig took what he called a "major step in the legal effort to clear my name," with his lawyers arguing he should be able to withdraw his plea because it was mistakenly entered. If the plea's withdrawn, prosecutors could start over and refile the disorderly conduct charge and a more serious charge, interference with privacy.

Craig's bid to complete his term would be best served by heading off a trial. A trial would mean testimony from the arresting officer and experts on the culture of anonymous homosexual sex. That's not something Craig, his family, Idahoans or the GOP want to endure.

So far, Craig's strategy is working. Minnesota's Fourth District Judge Charles Porter was skeptical of the arguments of Craig's lawyers. If Porter rules against Craig, as most legal experts expect, Craig won't face a jury anytime soon.

Porter might surprise us and set a trial date in coming months. But the likely scenario is Craig will head to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He can expect oral argument within two or three months after filing his challenge to an unsatisfactory ruling. An appellate decision would come within another 90 days, extending Craig's battle to spring.

Next step: the Minnesota Supreme Court, with arguments to come two or three months after a second appeal. The average time between argument and a decision is 4› months. That gets Craig to term's end in January 2009.

At that point, assuming his guilty plea stands, Craig can say he fought the good fight. Meantime, he will have remained in office, continued to collect his salary, and boost his pension that's based on years of service.

An ordinary person could not withstand what Craig has faced this month. But Larry Craig is unnaturally tough. He is supported by another fighter, his wife, Suzanne.

Mrs. Craig is doing more than standing beside her husband on national TV. As he returned to a cold reunion on Capitol Hill, she kept the home fires alight. She attended the Sept. 19 meeting of the Ada County Republican Women, hearing Gov. Butch Otter joke about how 104 of 105 legislators urged him to appoint them to succeed Craig.

Craig has put Otter in a tough spot. On Sept. 1, Otter stood at the senator's side as Craig vowed to put Idaho and his Senate colleagues first and bring a dignified end to a 27-year career. "I have full confidence that Gov. Otter will appoint a successor who will serve Idaho with distinction," Craig said.

Since then, Otter diligently heard from more than 30 hopefuls for the job, clearing his schedule last week to complete interviews so he could quickly name a successor should Craig resign Sunday.

But Otter waits, and it appears he and Idaho GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan are losing their patience. Both were pointedly silent last week after Craig said he would remain, declining comment on Craig's legal case.

There's another unknown. Though Craig's staff has said he won't run in 2008, we've heard nothing definitive from the senator.

"I'm not assuming anything, particularly in light of the Sept. 1 ‘resignation' statement," said Jim Weatherby, a retired Boise State professor. Weatherby wonders whether Craig's change of heart in the last 30 days could signal a move to seek a fourth Senate term. "It's impossible to predict what will happen," he said.

On that, I think most news weary Idahoans will agree.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438