WASHINGTON – Idahoans are beginning to coalesce around Lt. Gov. Jim Risch as the consensus candidate to replace Sen. Larry Craig FOX News has learned, and the Idaho Statesman is reporting that Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has made Risch his choice.
Craig, a Republican, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct after being arrested in a men's restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. On Tuesday, Craig denied he did anything wrong but is facing a rapidly strengthening move to force him out of office.
Risch, like Craig, is a rancher by trade. Risch briefly served as Idaho governor in 2006 when then Gov. Dirk Kempthorne stepped aside to become the U.S. Interior Department secretary. Risch also is an attorney who was first elected to the Idaho Senate in 1975, a position he held for 22 of the following 28 years, and was first elected lieutenant governor in 2002.
Otter's office is not yet officially saying anything.
"The governor has made no promises and no commitments to anyone. We don't deal in hypotheticals, and for the time being, Idaho still has a senior senator, and his name is Larry Craig," Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said.
"He's made no decision because there's no decision to be made," Hanian added.
Earlier in the day, FOX News learned of the strongest effort yet to push Craig out of office. The National Republican Senatorial Committee warned Craig privately that if he does not resign, he will not receive financial support in the upcoming election and it will recruit a Republican opponent to run against him.
The news comes on the day after police released the transcript and audio tape of Craig's June 11 interview with arresting officer Sgt. Dave Karsnia. Craig denied trying to solicit sexual acts and told the officer, "I am not gay. I don't do these kinds of things." Karsnia accused Craig of lying.
Craig pleaded guilty Aug. 1 to the disorderly conduct charge. The guilty plea followed his June arrest at the Minneapolis airport, where he allegedly signaled with hand and foot movements that he wanted to engage in sexual behavior. He has since publicly denied he did anything wrong.
Craig already has been stripped of key assignments in the Senate, losing the top Republican spot in the Veterans Affairs Committee and the top Republican spot on two committee subpanels.
Sources are telling FOX News that they expect Craig to resign Friday, and GOP officials have told The Associated Press that Craig is considering the prospect: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Craig's conduct was "unforgivable."
The RNC also has drafted a letter that would be released to the public calling for his resignation, however, sources say, official are hoping Craig will take the step of resigning before they take the next step.
A number of Republican senators have called for Craig to step down. Most notably so far, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., all but condemned him on Thursday. Ensign is in charge of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, which seeks to put more party members in the Senate. And a broader statement by Republican Senate leadership also is being considered, sources say.
Ensign stopped short of calling on the three-term senator to resign his seat, but strongly suggested he do so.
"I wouldn't put myself hopefully in that kind of position, but if I was in a position like that, that's what I would do," Ensign told The Associated Press. "He's going to have to answer that for himself."
Ensign said Craig made his situation more difficult because he "admitted guilt, he pled guilty. It's a little different situation than just being accused of something."
And several politicians are distancing themselves from political money obtained through Craig. The latest was Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who said he would be would be giving $2,500 received from Craig's political action committee to charity.
Craig last spoke Tuesday before going into seclusion with his family, saying, "I am not gay. I never have been gay."
Craig also told reporters he had wrongly cast off legal advice and entered the guilty plea because of intense pressure by the Idaho Statesman newspaper. He said he had since hired a lawyer and will try to overturn the guilty plea.
FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.