WASHINGTON — Republican leaders on Thursday stepped up pressure on Idaho Sen. Larry Craig as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called his conduct "unforgivable" and the chairman of the Senate Republican re-election committee suggested that Craig should resign.
Both senators stopped short of calling for Craig's resignation, but their prominence in the Senate Republican leadership gave their comments added weight at a time when Craig's political future already is precarious. McConnell, of Kentucky, is the leader and chief strategist of Senate Republicans, and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada heads the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which provides financial help and strategy advice to Republican Senate candidates.
The news broke Monday that Craig had pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct. Police were investigating an allegation that he'd solicited sex from a male undercover police officer in a men's rest room at the Minneapolis airport.
When he was pressed about his colleague's future, McConnell declined to say whether he thought Craig should resign. But he said that many Republican senators thought Craig should.
"We have acted promptly to begin the process of dealing with this conduct," McConnell said in Lexington, Ky. "We will see what happens in the coming days."
McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday removed the three-term Idaho senator from his leadership posts on Senate committees and subcommittees. They also have asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate.
In a public statement Tuesday in Boise, Craig denied that he's gay and said he'd done nothing wrong and shouldn't have pleaded guilty.
Ensign told the Associated Press in Nevada that it would be best for the Republican Party if Craig resigned. He stopped short of demanding that Craig leave office.
Craig, 62, was first elected to the House of Representatives from Idaho in 1980 and has held his Senate seat since 1990. He faces re-election next year.
Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John McCain of Arizona on Wednesday called for Craig to resign.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who dropped Craig on Monday as co-chair of his presidential campaign, said Thursday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that he wasn't joining the call for Craig's resignation.
"That's something between him and the Senate — which is going to carry out an ethics review, apparently — him and his constituents, and him and his conscience," Romney said.
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said Craig had blundered politically by claiming that he wasn't really guilty, keeping alive a story that otherwise might have died in a day or two. Then, he said, other Republicans helped extend the story by demanding that Craig resign.
Fabrizio said his fellow Republicans wrongly were linking the Craig scandal to the broader Mark Foley scandal, which hurt the party just before last fall's elections. Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned his seat in the House of Representatives after reports that he'd sent sexually explicit Internet messages to at least one underage male former page.
Fabrizio also ripped Romney, who earlier called his former supporter's alleged actions "disgusting." Fabrizio said Romney was trying to appeal to religious conservatives, who are crucial in upcoming primaries. Fabrizio added that those who demand that Craig resign risk looking hypocritical for remaining silent about alleged affairs with female prostitutes by Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
"These things generally generate more heat than they do actual impact. Come November 2008, unless Craig's on the ballot in Idaho, I don't see how this impacts the makeup of the Senate," Fabrizio said.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said the Craig scandal could tarnish his party, but more likely it would feed cynicism about Congress, Washington and politics.
"Any scandal hits the family-values party particularly hard," Ayers said. "But nobody claimed either party was populated entirely by saints. There is plenty of scandal to go around."
Gary Bauer, a Republican strategist and Christian conservative, said the scandal could dampen enthusiasm among Christian conservatives and that he hoped Craig would step down.
"This sort of thing discourages values voters," he said. "But as we go into next year, it would be illogical for those voters to say, 'I'm going to drop out so that the other side sweeps' and then puts into place a social issues agenda that those voters would find much more offensive than the pathetic acts of one senator."
(Stamper, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Kentucky. Lisa Fleisher of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., contributed to this article.)