Shadow of Foley Case Spurs Senate Republicans to Distance Selves From Larry Craig

While Sen. Larry Craig opts for seclusion in Idaho, Senate Republican leaders have tried to learn the lessons of the Mark Foley page scandal and distance themselves swiftly from a colleague ensnared in sexual misconduct.

Several prominent Senate GOP officials told FOX News that Republican leaders don't want to repeat the circular firing squad that engulfed the House GOP leadership last year after evidence surfaced about lewd e-mails from Foley, then a Florida congressman, to a congressional page.

In that case, House GOP leaders fought publicly over who knew what when and how Foley's case should be handled — feuds that deepened the story's corrosive effect on party morale and sparked public doubts about Republican vigilance on ethics and public morality.

The Craig case has launched a different strategy, with GOP leaders speaking every day this week on conference calls to plot their approach to handling the matter. On Tuesday they joined together to call for a Senate ethics committee investigation. On Wednesday, they ordered Craig to give up leadership posts on committees and sub-committees on which he serves.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has led the effort, phoning Craig the past two days to deliver the news that the Republican leadership was moving against him.

"McConnell is smart and tough," said one staffer who doesn't work for the Kentucky Republican. "He saw what happened on the House side after Foley. He doesn't want Senate Republicans to go through that."

The fear of another "culture of corruption" backlash is palpable among Senate Republican aides. Though less orchestrated, calls for Craig's resignation from Republican Sens. John McCain and Norm Coleman, and condemnation from Missouri Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond also fall into McConnell's strategy of pre-emption.

No evidence is apparent yet that Craig's misconduct will cost Republicans the so-called values voters who have formed their base for years. Unlike in Foley's case, any secretive behavior by Craig did not lead to suggestions that something might have been amiss.

Still, as one GOP leadership staffer put it, "We were just beginning to make some headway on the Democrats with their bad poll numbers and there was some encouraging news from Iraq and now this. The Craig news sets everything back."

McConnell and fellow GOP leaders are clearly trying to limit the damage, giving free rein to colleagues who may call for Craig to resign or criticize his conduct in unusually harsh terms.

No Senate GOP leader has yet called for Craig to resign and McConnell's moves have placed emphasis on keeping the leadership unified. So far, that strategy has worked but its long-term effects may not be to improve a bad situation but merely to prevent it from getting worse.

The question now is whether Craig will survive the weekend. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has given no indication or public acknowledgment about a replacement should Craig resign.

High-placed GOP sources in Washington increasingly doubt Craig will quit. They say if Craig resigns then the Minneapolis airport arrest on charges of lewd behavior in a public restroom will become his political epitaph — something they speculate Craig could not and would not accept.

The dominant speculation is that Craig will try to ride things out while he makes legal maneuvers to withdraw his guilty plea to a charge of disorderly conduct. Then sometime in September, GOP sources say, they expect Craig to announce he won't seek re-election next year.

Former Democratic Rep. Larry LaRocco told FOX News that Craig's woes haven't caused him to change his strategy in his bid to win the Senate seat next year. LaRocco announced his campaign well before Craig's troubles began.

"I'm ready to run against Larry Craig or whomever the Republicans nominate," LaRocco said in a phone interview. "I don't want to comment on Senator Craig's situation right now. But they (Idaho Republicans) might have a different choice (for Senate nominee)."

LaRocco said recent gains for Democrats in state legislative races and the tighter-than-expected race for governor that Otter won last year encouraged him to run for the Senate.

"There is a great appetite for change in Idaho," LaRocco said. "Idaho is at a tipping point like Montana."

Democrats have gained the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat in neighboring Montana, prompting more optimism in the high plains about a possible Democratic rebound after years of GOP dominance.

Craig had signaled he might not seek re-election before the sex scandal broke. LaRocco said he now expects Craig will bow out of the 2008 race.

"I think it will be an open seat and I'm just working hard to raise money and connect with voters. I said when I got in this race you can't win the lottery without a ticket. So I ran."

LaRocco may be in for the jackpot. If Craig steps down or doesn't see re-election it's not clear who would run for the nomination. Still, Republicans doubt the seat will be lost in Idaho as long as Craig is not the nominee.

"I have no anxiety about us losing Idaho with a new candidate and a fresh start," said a Senate GOP leadership staffer. "I have much more if Craig stubbornly stays on and seeks re-election"