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Democrats Furiously Raising Dough for Tim Johnson

While Republicans are a taking a deferential kid-glove approach to the delicate situation of Sen. Tim Johnson's (D-S.D.) recovery from a severe brain hemorrhage, Democrats are raising money hand over fist to make sure they keep that Red-State seat in 2008.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and members of the Democratic Caucus held a third fundraiser in as many days Wednesday evening for Johnson' campaign committee, a day after Johnson released his first public statement and photos since being hospitalized three months ago.

Johnson hasn't officially announced he'll run for re-election. But the seat is a high priority for Democratic leaders, who are aggressively positioning the South Dakota Democrat with plenty of cash for the day they hope will come when he calls himself a candidate.

Wednesday's event at the Hotel George had a red-carpet vibe as the cocktail set on the patio of the hotel's Bistro Bis bar watched senators and major lobbyists climb out of black SUV's and Saabs to pay their respects to Johnson from afar and donate $1,000 each to his campaign. Rock star Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was driven to the event in his black Saab by an aide. We watched him get out of the car while talking on his cell phone, grab a little piece of scrap paper and remove his chewing gum - no doubt, Nicorette, which the '08 hopeful has admitted using to kick his smoking habit - before strolling inside.

According to sources who attended the private event, Reid assured the crowd that Johnson is doing "really well," that his speech is "almost back to normal" and that the senator's popularity in the state is "higher than ever." He also pointed at Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and reminded Democrats that "nobody thought a Democrat could win in Nebraska" but that Nelson went on to win his race with 64 percent. Which is why, he explained, Johnson needs their support so he can win again in South Dakota.

Wednesday's fundraiser for Johnson followed two others: a luncheon on Monday hosted by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and an evening reception on Tuesday hosted by Reid and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). Neither Johnson's nor Reid's office would give figures on how much was raised, but Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher said her boss is "incredibly appreciative of everyone's help." She said Johnson hasn't officially announced but that "he's expecting to run."

Johnson's staff avoids putting a timeline on the senator's return to Congress. His recovery has been very slow but steady. As the Senator said in his statement, "This been an unexpected journey, and there is a long road in front of me."

Johnson, who still cannot walk on his own and undergoes several hours of physical, speech and occupational therapy a day, six days a week, doesn't have to officially announce his candidacy until South Dakota's filing deadline next spring. Democrats have begun raising beaucoup dollars without competition from Senate Republican political strategists, who have largely taken South Dakota off the table in deference to Johnson's tenuous health situation.

"Tim Johnson's well being continues to be our number one concern in the state of South Dakota," says Rebecca Fisher, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Behind the scenes, though, Senate Republicans were peeved to learn of the Democrats' aggressive fundraising for Johnson. "Democrats are taking advantage of the situation," one Senate Republican told the Sleuth. Another called the Democrats' behavior "crass."

But Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller says it only makes sense. "Democratic Senators are pulling together to raise money for Tim Johnson now while he focuses on what's important, making continued progress in his recovery."

Reid spokesman Jim Manley echoed the sentiment saying, "These fund-raisers demonstrate that his colleagues will do whatever they can to help Sen. Johnson out."

By Mary Ann Akers  |  March 15, 2007; 5:55 PM ET
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