WASHINGTON – The past two months have not been easy for Sen. Pete Domenici, the six-term Republican from New Mexico accused of pressuring his state's former U.S. attorney on a political corruption investigation.
Some have even speculated the trouble might force the 74-year-old to retire in 2008.
Domenici's campaign fundraising tally, however, may quiet speculation, at least for now, that his retirement is imminent.
Domenici announced he raised $393,786 since January, giving him $541,116 in the bank. That is roughly comparable to what he had raised during the same period last time he was up for election, in 2001. It indicates he is on track for a strong re-election bid, said his campaign fundraiser, Heidi Fuller.
Still, questions continue to be raised about his future. Healthy fundraising does not mean the election will be easy, said University of New Mexico political scientist Lonna Atkeson.
"They're certainly sending a clear signal about their expectation to continue in this race," Atkeson said. "What's bigger is — down the road, as the election comes — will questions about his health or the (U.S. attorney) story hurt his campaign?"
In New Mexico, Domenici is "el jefe" — "the boss." A Republican in a swing state, Domenici has been so popular and powerful that even Democrats concede he has been unbeatable.
But the senior senator's conflict with former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias has given Democrats what they hope is the first chance in decades to knock Domenici out of office.
Domenici's office declined several requests for the senator to be interviewed for this story. He does seem to be feeling the stress, despite the support his campaign donors showed.
At an Albuquerque, N.M., banquet last month honoring his years of public service, Domenici called recent weeks "hell" like he had never experienced his entire career. In a quiet, gravelly voice, he thanked the audience for their accolades and support.
"This time it really was helpful," he said.
Democrats would like nothing more than to force Domenici into retirement or force him to run an election he's not up for. In him, they see shades of other, erstwhile Republican senators: Conrad Burns of Montana and William Roth of Delaware.
Burns was defeated last year after Democrats linked him to a Republican scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Roth's age and health were issues in his bid for a sixth term, which he lost in 2000.
"Senators in his peer group have lost elections in less competitive states," said New Mexico state Democratic Party spokesman Matt Farrauto. "The window of opportunity has been pried open much wider."
A telephone call landed Domenici in the midst of the congressional battle over whether Iglesias and seven other federal prosecutors were fired for their work on political corruption cases. The issue has Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fighting to keep his job.
In October, Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., separately phoned Iglesias to ask about political corruption cases. They say their calls were proper. Iglesias said last month that he took their questions as pressure to rush indictments before the November election in an investigation into an alleged kickback scheme involving Democrats.
Iglesias believes he was fired in December because he did not give the lawmakers what they wanted. He contends he did as much as he could on the voter fraud cases, but the allegations did not pan out.
Indictments were issued by a grand jury in the investigation late last month.
The Senate ethics committee has opened a preliminary investigation into Domenici's phone call to Iglesias. State Democratic Party Chairman John Wertheim says his party believes Domenici might be vulnerable as a result.
"A lot of people are starting to talk about it being a real prospect," Wertheim said. "Domenici has been an apologist for the most disastrous administration in this century. Now people will ask, 'What do we get out of keeping Domenici in Washington?"'
Even before the controversy, Democrats were trying to make the most of whispers that Domenici had become forgetful in recent years.
During Congress' recess in December, Domenici was the subject of gossipy news stories when he was sighted in a Senate hallway wearing loose-fitting pants some said looked like pajamas. He said they were hunting pants, but the state Democratic Party now refers to him as "Pajama Pete."
Internal Justice Department documents and statistics that show Iglesias was well-regarded and had a good record among his peers. Nonetheless, state Republicans say many in New Mexico's small legal community had long-standing gripes with Iglesias for failing to act on what they consider valid claims of vote fraud in the state's close 2004 elections.
Domenici has said he did not mention the elections during the phone call. If Domenici called Iglesias in October, the senator's GOP backers say, it was only to follow through on constituent complaints.