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Johnson Illness Stymies GOP

Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) slow but steady recovery from a stroke has done no apparent political damage to his 2008 re-election hopes. But it has hamstrung Republican efforts to recruit a top-tier challenger and put a severe damper on GOP fundraising for what was expected to be one of the marquee races of the 2008 cycle.

Republicans have been leery of launching even the mildest rhetorical attack against Johnson since he was hospitalized Dec. 13, and they acknowledge that his illness temporarily has frozen any effort to oust him. Meanwhile, Johnson — with the help of fellow Senate Democrats — has continued to build his war chest, and in light of a healthy prognosis by doctors, recently reignited his campaign operation.

“Make no mistake, it does handicap Republican candidates,” said potential Johnson challenger Dusty Johnson (R), the elected chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, who is not related to the Senator. “Politically, things are very much on hold.”

Dusty Johnson’s dilemma is a near perfect example of the uncomfortable situation Sen. Johnson’s illness has put Republicans in as they try to prepare for what should be one of their best Senate pickup opportunities of the 2008 cycle.

After popular Gov. Mike Rounds (R), Dusty Johnson is one of the first individuals mentioned when Republican operatives list potential candidates who could give Sen. Johnson a serious challenge. But Dusty Johnson is deferring to Rounds, who, in turn, appears to be holding off a formal decision on running pending a clearer picture of Sen. Johnson’s plans.

Both Democratic and Republican observers of South Dakota politics believe Rounds, elected to a second term in November, would run only if Johnson retires.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.), referring to Rounds as his first choice to either challenge Sen. Johnson or run for an open seat, acknowledged that Sen. Johnson’s illness momentarily has disabled Republican plans to target him. Meanwhile, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently formed a joint fundraising committee with Sen. Johnson, with the Senator’s other colleagues also pitching in on that front.

“That was one of our top chances for a pickup and still remains one of our top chances for a pickup,” Ensign said, before adding: “It’s delicate. It’s delicate right now, and so you have to be sensitive to, you know, the personal needs of that family.”

Sen. Johnson, 60, is now out of the hospital and in a private rehabilitation facility. He is meeting regularly with his chief of staff and hiring campaign aides. Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher — who stated in January that the Senator’s political future is on hold — said Tuesday that his re-election effort is now moving forward.

But for Republicans, the waiting game continues, in large part because it still remains politically unseemly to target the Democratic incumbent — particularly in South Dakota.

South Dakota is a small state, where everybody tends to know everybody and civility in political campaigns still reigns despite the hard-fought nature of Senate races in 2002 and 2004, respectively, that saw now-Sen. John Thune (R) barely lose to Sen. Johnson before beating then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) by a hair two years later.

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