WASHINGTON -- Seeking to salvage his reputation and quell the media storm stirred by his guilty plea to disorderly conduct charges, Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho yesterday denied making a sexual advance to an undercover officer in a men's room.
"I am not gay and never have been," the Republican lawmaker declared at a Boise news conference with his wife, Suzanne, at his side.
But even as he denied wrongdoing, Senate GOP leaders called for an ethics investigation. His case sent shock waves through Republican circles here and in his home state. Already, Craig was under intense pressure to give up the seat he has held since 1991 rather than risk handing Democrats what has been a safe seat in a solidly red state.
Craig said that he would announce next month whether he will seek re-election.
"This is one more headache that Republicans don't need," said Jennifer Duffy, analyst of Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
At the news conference, Craig, a leading voice on issues affecting the West, apologized for his handling of the incident, saying he regretted his plea.
"It is clear, though, that through my actions I have brought a cloud over Idaho. For that, I ask the people of Idaho for their forgiveness," he said.
The disorderly conduct charge grew out of a June incident at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in which an officer investigating lewd-conduct complaints arrested Craig for allegedly making sexual advances. The arrest and the senator's subsequent guilty plea became public Monday, when it was reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Craig, 62, was ordered to pay $575 in fines and fees and given one year's probation.
Though the senator denied being gay, it was not the first time he has confronted sexually related accusations. In 1982, he denied involvement in a congressional page sex scandal.
Craig said yesterday that he "overreacted and made a poor decision" in responding to the arrest without seeking counsel from an attorney, staff or family in hopes of "making it go away." Craig said he has now hired an attorney to examine the case.
"I did nothing wrong," he said, reading from a statement.
He blamed his state of mind at the time on the Idaho Statesman, the state's leading newspaper, which he said for eight months had "relentlessly and viciously harassed" him and his family.
A front-page headline in the Statesman yesterday read, "Men's room arrest reopens questions about Sen. Larry Craig." The story reported on sexually related accusations against Craig dating back to his college days. Calling the paper's campaign "a witch hunt," Craig said the paper's investigation had fueled unfounded rumors about his sexual orientation.
Bill Manny, Idaho Statesman managing editor, responded in an e-mail, "We didn't print anything until the senator pleaded guilty. Our story outlined what we've done and it speaks for itself."
Senate Republican leaders, calling the incident a "serious matter," asked for an Ethics Committee investigation. "In the meantime, leadership is examining other aspects of the case to determine if additional action is required," the GOP leaders said in a statement.
Boise radio station KBOI-AM received a surprising number of callers who want Craig out of office, said Chris Walter, host of Idaho Talks Live, not because of his arrest but because of his support for a controversial immigration bill.
"That was the opinion of about half," Walter said. "The other half were upset that someone - anyone - has embarrassed Idaho again, or they were disgusted with his apparent hypocrisy, since his stand has always been against gay marriage and other recognition of gay rights."
David Adler, a political science professor at Idaho State University, noted that GOP leaders would be unlikely to support any interest that Craig might have in trying to hold his seat.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.