Condit in fight for political life

In scandal's wake, congressman picked to lose in primary

February 22, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MERCED, Calif. - His supporters wear buttons that say, "Twelve more years." But 11 days from now, Rep. Gary A. Condit is expected to become the first incumbent to be unseated in the 2002 elections.

Sunken-cheeked and skeletal, the 53-year-old Democrat already seems a political dead man walking.

Surrounded by a fiercely loyal band of family members and longtime supporters, he made his way past reporters at a candidates forum in Merced the other night. Loud chants of "Gary, Gary, Gary" let him effectively ignore reporters and their questions.

Few elected officials, even one as personally popular as Condit once was, could expect to survive the searing national publicity that engulfed him after Chandra Levy, a young woman from his Central California district, disappeared in May.

The surprise was that Condit, who hasn't denied that he had an affair with the 24-year-old intern but says he had nothing to do with her disappearance, chose to run for re-election anyway. He was questioned repeatedly by police but was never charged with any wrongdoing.

At events, his backers hold aloft white, tube-shaped balloons that are a Condit campaign tradition. Bright orange letters spell his name down the sides.

Now, in what is likely to be his final race, these trinkets have taken on a whole new meaning. Condit condoms, they're being called, according to his opponent's camp. "Whoever designed it, they ought to fire him," said a burly Condit backer, gamely toting one into a campaign event.

Unless the polls and politicians are wrong, Condit himself is about to be fired by voters he has served in Congress since 1989.

The major newspaper in his district called on him to resign last summer. Most party leaders and colleagues in Congress have either deserted him or kept their distance. A poll in September, taken before the terrorist attacks focused public attention elsewhere, showed that nearly two of three voters in his district felt that Condit should not run again.

Condit, however, is demonstrating a cast-iron disregard for what others think. He is unwilling to give up a 30-year life in politics, the only career he has known, without a fight.

A total of 12 candidates, most of them novices, have entered the contest for his seat. But Condit is running against "East Coast pundits" and the news media, casting himself as their victim and his candidacy as "a mission."

Recently, Condit declared it would "rock this nation" if he won the March 5 primary election. It would certainly stun analysts, who have come as close as they ever do to saying it will never happen. Winning "appears nearly impossible" for Condit, concluded The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that specializes in congressional contests.

No new leads in case

Nearly 10 months after Levy vanished, there are no new leads in the case. Her parents, who live in Condit's district, have remained largely silent during the campaign. Levy's name is rarely mentioned by the candidates, but she remains the central issue in the race.

Condit, in radio ads, refers obliquely to the scandal. He says he can't expect voters to ignore "all the negative things that have been written and said about me." All he can do, he adds, is "hope and pray" that they'll focus on the good things he has done for them.

Meanwhile, Condit's wife filed a $10 million libel suit yesterday against The National Enquirer for a story that said she verbally attacked Levy. Carolyn Condit said the Enquirer falsely reported that she telephoned her husband's Washington condominium from her California home and "flew into a rage" during a five-minute "heated phone screamfest."

The Enquirer's story said the confrontation occurred just days before Levy vanished from the nation's capital. The suit, filed in federal court, says Washington police debunked the alleged phone call after the Enquirer first reported it on its Web site July 26.

As the campaign heads into the final days, Gary Condit's main pitch is that this economically pressed rural district cannot afford to give up the seniority he has won in Congress. His two-minute opening statement at the League of Women Voters forum here Wednesday night was a listing of government projects he has brought to the area, and their multimillion-dollar price tags.

"I've perfected my vocation," Condit told the audience in his closing remarks. "It's about seniority. ... Don't let any negative publicity taint what you do."

There was a brief stir when a fringe candidate, Ralph White, labeled the front-runner for Condit's seat, Dennis Cardoza, a "Judas," accusing him of selling out his old friend. After the event ended, Cadee Condit, the congressman's daughter, came up and congratulated White with a hearty clap on the back.

Outside, a few demonstrators carried signs. "Fire the Liar," read one. "We Decide! Not the Media!" countered a Condit placard.

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