Democrats want to talk about economy, but Condit’s in the way |

Democrats want to talk about economy, but Condit’s in the way


WASHINGTON (AP) – Senior Democrats increasingly see Rep. Gary Condit as a liability and distraction in making their case to the country on policy issues and are stepping up criticism to distance him from the party.

The Democrats worry that the public’s focus is on the controversy over Condit and his relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy instead of on the economy, budget and spending for social programs. Party leaders have been hoping those issues can win them control of Congress in next year’s elections.

”We can’t go anywhere without people saying, ‘What do you think about Gary Condit?”’ complained Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt’s strong rebuke of Condit last Friday was the first open criticism from a Democratic leader of the seven-term congressman from California’s Central Valley. It sent a signal to other Democrats, and since then others have criticized Condit, who was popular with colleagues in both parties before the Levy case.

California Gov. Gray Davis, a longtime Condit friend who employs both of Condit’s children, joined the critics Monday, an indication that support is eroding for the congressman, even among allies.

”They don’t want to be tarnished with secondhand sleaze,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political science professor at the University of Southern California.

When Congress returns next week after a monthlong break, several Democrats plan to denounce Condit, according to senior party aides on Capitol Hill. Some already have privately told Gephardt that action is needed to distance the party from the California lawmaker.

Gephardt floated one possibility to signal the party’s disgust: stripping Condit of his Intelligence Committee assignment. Erik Smith, a Gephardt spokesman, said Gephardt probably will talk to Democrats about Condit informally after their return.

Party aides said there likely won’t be a massive call for Condit’s resignation, in part because Democratic prospects would be poor in a special election that would ensue if Condit were to step down.

Rangel, the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, called Condit ”an embarrassment” to Congress and his family but said his colleague’s political future was best left to voters in Condit’s district.

There is newfound uncertainty about whether Condit will run next year, especially after California lawmakers finish their once-a-decade task of redrawing congressional districts.

Chad Condit, the congressman’s son, said Monday he would advise his father not to seek re-election. Condit has until early December to decide.

Condit’s poorly received performance in a series of interviews last week has eased pressure on Davis to protect Condit in redistricting. Democratic strategists already are looking at ways to carve up Condit’s district in a way that will help party lawmakers in nearby jurisdictions or to add enough Democratic voters to give another Democrat a shot at holding the district.

The congressman’s standing among fellow politicians had begun to drop even before he broke his almost four-month silence to discuss his relationship with Levy, the 24-year-old woman from Modesto, Calif., who disappeared May 1.

But Condit’s support has fallen since the interviews.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., former chairman of the Democrats’ House campaign committee and a key party fund-raiser, has had a close-up view of media scrutiny of his family. He said he understands when public officials try to protect their privacy, but he believes Condit could have been more forthcoming, particularly in last week’s interview with ABC’s Connie Chung.

”What he offered in the interview was simply unacceptable,” Kennedy said.

But Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at Washington’s Brookings Institution, played down the significance of Condit’s woes to congressional Democrats.

”It’s a soap opera,” Mann said. ”We’re now beginning to get some real politics and policy discussions from the budget struggles, violence in the Middle East, stem cell research. The Condit story is just not that interesting.”

Associated Press White House Correspondent Ron Fournier contributed to this report.

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