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Tim Johnson's Good Week

While the eyes of the national media were (and remain) on the increasingly strange saga of Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), something else far more meaningful to the fight for Senate control in 2008 was happening.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D) returned to South Dakota for the first time since he underwent emergency brain surgery in late 2006, delivering a speech to supporters and sitting for an interview with members of the local media. Today, Johnson returned to the Senate for the first time.

Both events were much watched by members of the political chattering class for signs of how debilitated (if at all) Johnson remained and whether or not he seemed willing and able to stand for a third term in 2008.

The early reports out of South Dakota were very encouraging for Johnson. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader -- the opinion leader in the state -- proclaimed that "in terms of knowing the issues and responding to current events, no progress is necessary" for Johnson. (The video of the paper's interview with Johnson shows that his speech remains slurred but his mind is acute.)

And, at his speech in South Dakota, Johnson sounded as though he had already made up his mind about seeking re-election. "I believe I have been given a second chance at life," he said. "I will take that second chance and work harder than ever to be the best I can be for each and every South Dakotan."

One Democrat familiar with South Dakota politics said Johnson will do a series of "thank you" events around the state over the next few weeks with a formal announcement of his future plans coming sometime later this fall. Of that announcement, the source said: "I think [Johnson] feels like he is out of Tom's shadow for the first time in his congressional career, plus with strong committee assignments and now the illness, he is more hellbent on winning this election than ever and showing people he can be the senior senator who delivers."

Johnson came to Congress in 1986, winning the seat vacated by Tom Daschle (D) who was elected to the Senate. When Johnson was elected to the Senate a decade later, he was again eclipsed by Daschle who had already been elected as the leader of Senate Democrats. Daschle lost his re-election bid to Sen. John Thune (R) in 2004.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact that Johnson seems to be preparing to run for re-election could well erase one of Republicans' real takeover opportunities next fall. Johnson beat Thune by just 524 votes and represents a state that President Bush carried in 2004 by 22 percentage points. But if the incumbent is on the ballot it will be very difficult for Republicans to recruit a top-tier challenge.

In political terms, Johnson's illness and recovery makes it very tough to run a modern campaign (replete with attack ads etc.) against him. Need evidence? Gov. Mike Rounds (R), the most oft-mentioned potential challenger to Johnson, spoke at the Senator's "welcome back" event in South Dakota and Thune, the leader of the state party establishment, was scheduled to hold the Senate doors open for Johnson this morning when he returned to the Senate.

It's hard to go from praising Johnson for his return to public life in September to raising questions about whether he deserves re-election in a few months time. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign said recently that he has begun the recruitment process against Johnson, a decision that drew incredibly overheated remarks from Johnson's spokeswoman. (Stu Rothenberg wrote a column on the comments that definitely deserves a read.)

We don't envy Ensign's task in this race. If his committee has any hope of limiting its losses in the 2008 election, they must put seats like this one in play. And yet, while Rounds would almost certainly run in an open seat sceanrio, it seems unlikely that the governor would risk his political future on a race as difficult -- for a variety of reasons -- as this one.

Until Johnson formally announces for re-election, we continue to believe he may change his mind. But, events over the last week seem to indicate that, for the moment, he is in the race to stay.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 5, 2007; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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