South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, in his first public appearance since a life-threatening brain hemorrhage eight months ago declared "I'm back" and told supporters his will has never been stronger.
Aging Democrats waved "Welcome Home Tim" placards as part of an event clearly orchestrated to demonstrate that Johnson is healthy enough to resume his duties as a U.S. Senator after collapsing last December with a brain hemorrhage.
Johnson underwent emergency surgery. The senator's son, Brendan, told the crowd in Sioux Falls that in the days after his father's collapsed, the family prayed only that he would make it through the night. What followed was months in hospitals and rehabilitation programs.
"My father was going to have to learn to move again," Brendan said. "He was going to have to teach himself how to talk. That was going to be a long frustrating process."
He added that his father and the Johnson family still have a long way to go.
Brendan's old brother, Brooks, pushed the senator out on to the podium in a wheel chair. The senator rose with the help of a cane and acknowledged the roar of the crowd with a nod.
"Before I get too far along in my remarks," he said. "It must already be clear to you that my speech is not 100 percent. My doctors tell me that it will get there."
Johnson thanked the people of South Dakota for their support and patience during his long recuperation. Sticking to a prepared speech, he said "I'm back" and vowed to return to the floor of the Senate this fall.
"I promise you all that I will work harder than ever for you and for our state," he added. "Not everyone gets a second chance at life. My commitment to you for my second chance at life is to a make you and all South Dakotans the beneficiary of that gift."
After the speech, Sue Hoffman who was in the crowd, said she was heartened to see Johnson at the podium.
"I think he looks great," she said. "And he is a great person for South Dakota.
Johnson will need to be strong as he re-enters the political fray in Washington. In 2002 he won re-election by only 524 votes. Before his brain injury Republicans had eyed his seat as vulnerable.
Stu Rothenberg, the editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said any Republican challenger would have to treat Johnson gingerly.
"There is both a sympathy factor and, on the flip side, [a question of whether he] can … do the job. And that is why his appearance before the public and the press is so critical," Rothenberg said.
"If voters think he can do the job, I think he could be impossible to beat if he runs for reelection. If they're not sure about that, then that offsets some of the sympathy," he said.