For Bill Clinton, the word “is” meant a great deal.
For Tim Johnson, “if” is the key word.
A week after issuing a statement that read like the opening salvo in a campaign: “I fully intend to put together a winning campaign in the weeks and months ahead,” Johnson backtracked in a teleconference with SD reporters Wednesday morning.
“If I run again, I will run a strong campaign is what I meant,” he said. “But only if I run again, and it’s far too soon to make that statement.”
Last week, he issued the statement at the same time former Gov. Mike Rounds was touring the state, making three campaign announcements about his plans to run in 2014. Johnson was able to blunt a bit of the impact for Rounds by issuing his statement, and apparently announcing his intentions to seek a fourth term.
Still, it was vague enough to seek more information. But when I asked Johnson’s communications director, Perry Plumart, for clarification of Johnson’s statement — did it mean he was running in 2014? — Perry passed on the question: “The statement speaks for itself,” he said.
Well, no, it didn’t. Johnson was pressed on it Wednesday, and now he has left his future more cloudy than ever.
Perhaps he hasn’t decided. Maybe he will try to hand the Senate seat over to his son, South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson. Maybe that’s the “winning campaign” he will put together.
Or did he think he needed to slow Rounds’ roll, so he issued that statement welcoming him into the race, but also saying he expected the seat to remain in Democratic hands?
It’s all still unclear, and Tim Johnson has to take the credit, and the blame, for that. His health has been shaky for several years, and he is viewed as an underdog to win a fourth term against a man who easily won two terms as governor and left office popular with voters.
Johnson turns 66 at the end of the year, and his speech and mobility remain seriously impaired since his 2006 brain bleed. MDR Editor Seth Tupper described the senator’s current condition well in a column.
Will TJ risk his undefeated status? Is he capable of waging a long, tough fight for office? Do Democrats in the state and the nation want him to try, fearing he may lose at a time when they want to retain control of the Senate?
These are all “ifs,” and that is the biggest little word in the South Dakota political world right now.