ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
More bad news for Ohio Republican Senator Larry Craig. He's under fire over his arrest during a police sting in Minneapolis in a men's room. Today, Craig reportedly agreed to give up his Senate committee assignments at the request of Republican leaders.
Earlier, two of his fellow senators, Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Norm Coleman of Minnesota called on Craig to resign. The White House also expressed its disappointment over the scandal. Even back home in Idaho, Craig is losing ground with some of his strongest supporters as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE: Larry Craig says he did nothing wrong in that airport bathroom, and he says he pleaded to disorderly conduct only because he was under stress. But that explanation is not cutting it even with Idaho conservatives. Bryan Fischer runs a group called the Idaho Values Alliance.
BRYAN FISCHER: We sadly come to the position that we feel would be appropriate for the senator to resign.
KASTE: The Values Alliance has long agreed with Senator Craig on his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. And Fischer says he's always discounted the rumors about Craig's sex life. That is until Monday. Craig's guilty plea in Minnesota changed things, he says.
FISCHER: One of the things that was troubling to me is that according to the police officer's report, the senator evidently was well aware of the protocol that people go through to arrange these liaisons and now would be an indication to me that this was not the first time the senator had engaged in that kind of behavior.
KASTE: For years, newsrooms have been getting tips about Craig allegedly being gay. But most of them steered clear of the story for lack of on-the-record sources.
Jim Weatherby, a political analyst in Boise, says news of Craig's arrest changed the rules.
JIM WEATHERBY: It hurts him now because you can talk about it openly.
KASTE: Weatherby says the men's room incident has poisoned Craig's relationship with Idaho conservatives, a relationship that was already suffering.
WEATHERBY: Senator Craig was a very strong supporter of immigration reform, which angered a lot of conservatives in Idaho. So he was in some difficulty with some of the right wing in Idaho. Now they - a number of them now are really angry.
KASTE: Weatherby says if Craig decides not to run for reelection next year or if he resigns early, there are a number of prominent state Republicans who are waiting in the wings. So far, Craig seems to be in a fighting mood. Yesterday afternoon, passersby in downtown Boise were treated to the unusual spectacle of seeing their senior senator standing at a lectern set up on the sidewalk facing TV cameras and saying this.
(Soundbite of Sen. Craig's press conference)
LARRY CRAIG: Let me be clear. I am not gay. I never have been gay.
KASTE: And Craig left open the question of his political future.
CRAIG: There are still goals I would like to accomplish and I believe I can still be an effective leader for our state. Next month, I will announce as planned, as many of you have already been told, whether or not I will seek reelection.
KASTE: If Craig insists on running for reelection, Weatherby says, the lingering scandal might actually put in play what is usually a safe Republican Senate seat.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KASTE: While the politicos weigh strategy, Craig is actually getting some sympathy from unexpected quarters.
MINERVA JANE: I'm Minerva Jane, Boise's most notorious drag queen.
KASTE: Minerva, also known as Judd Reynolds(ph), is a bouffant blond who host Tuesday night drag bingo at The Balcony, one of Boise's gay bars. It's just a block from the sidewalk where Senator Craig denied being gay. Earlier in the evening, Minerva had some fun at his expense, handing out copies of Craig's Minnesota mug shot during her act. But now she is more wistful about his situation. She is one of those here who assumes that Craig is, in fact, gay, and she feels sorry for him.
JANE: It's very sad, it's very, very sad and it's sad for anybody who has to live that kind of life. Unfortunately, he has chosen a life path as a conservative Republican senator with a wife and family. Unfortunately, his life is almost public property rather than his own free will.
KASTE: Oddly enough, this bar is probably one of the few places in Idaho right now where Senator Craig might get an honestly friendly reception if he were ever to take the unlikely decision to drop in.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Boise.