Path of the Storm

Conrad burns was doing his best to win over the crowd, but he just wasn't feeling the love. The Republican senator was supposed to be home in Montana last Friday night, where he was to be the featured guest at a GOP fund-raiser. Instead, he was stuck in an airport on his way back from Washington, where the Senate had tried, and failed, to pass an immigration bill. So Burns awkwardly attempted to attend the dinner by cell phone. Over the buzz of the long-distance connection, amplified through a microphone, the three-term senator declared that he had never felt so much energy. "This is going to be a ground war," he said. "But this campaign isn't about me. It's about you and how much you're willing to work on the ground to win in November!" The audience, mostly elderly Republicans, applauded politely, then went back to their buffet plates.

Of course, the campaign is all about Burns--and his tight relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the one-man political wrecking ball who helped bring down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and who may destroy the careers of other prominent Republicans. Last week DeLay, besieged by corruption investigations in Washington and Texas, announced he was resigning from Congress. He said he didn't want his troubles to provide ammunition for Democrats, whose midterm campaign strategy is to use the Abramoff scandal to portray all Republicans as corrupt money-grubbers. DeLay had hoped to tough it out, but then two of his closest former aides agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy in the Abramoff probe. DeLay said his decision to quit was unrelated; still, he knew he was finished.

Now other Republicans who once happily accepted the lobbyist's cash and gifts are suffering from the same Abramoff Effect. Ohio Rep. Robert Ney is under investigation for allegedly doing Abramoff favors in return for free trips, gifts and campaign contributions, including an August 2002 trip to the St. Andrews golf course in Scotland. Ney has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying he was "duped" by Abramoff and misled about who paid for the trip. The congressman has vowed to stay in the race, "even if I'm indicted." That's a campaign slogan the GOP could live without.

Abramoff spread so much cash around Washington that Republicans from all over the country are now struggling to distance themselves from the lobbyist. Rep. John Doolittle of California, Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook, Rep. J. D. Hayworth of Arizona and Florida Rep. Katherine Harris are all trying to explain how Abramoff's tainted cash wound up on their books.

But after DeLay, Burns may be the ripest target for Democrats, who dream of winning six seats and regaining the Senate. Burns took more money from Abramoff and his clients than any other member of Congress--nearly $150,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. A lawyer familiar with the investigation, who declined to be named discussing an ongoing case, confirms that Burns is under scrutiny for his connections to Abramoff--in particular, whether he and his staff promoted legislation to help Abramoff's clients in exchange for campaign contributions or gifts.

As chairman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees Indian Affairs, Burns was the object of lavish attention from Abramoff, who represented Native American casino owners. In 2001 two Burns staffers--including Will Brooke, his chief of staff at the time--accepted a trip to the Super Bowl. The trip allegedly violated rules banning travel paid for by lobbyists. The staffers said they were told that the lobbyist's tribal clients had picked up the tab, which would have been allowed under Senate rules exempting gifts from Native Americans. Several DeLay staffers were also on the trip. Brooke and another Burns aide later went to work for Abramoff. (Burns denies any wrongdoing, as does Brooke, who has been questioned in the probe.)

In an interview published in Vanity Fair, Abramoff bragged that he got "every appropriation we wanted" from Burns's committee. The lobbyist told the magazine that his staff was "as close as they could be" with the senator's office. Abramoff said that Burns's aides were such frequent guests at Signatures, the lobbyist's D.C. restaurant, that the place was like "their cafeteria." Burns disputes all of Abramoff's claims. In a campaign ad, he denounces the lobbyist as "the guy that ... lied to anybody and everybody." In the ad Burns says, "I don't know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me."

The senator is trying hard to convince his constituents that he's still the same folksy guy who won them over by driving around the vast state in an old Chevy pickup, shaking hands with most of the 900,000 residents and tellin' it like it is in plain, simple language. But everywhere he goes now, there are questions about Abramoff. The GOP has officially thrown its support behind Burns, but some Republicans are nervous. "One of his characteristics was his trustworthiness and integrity," says Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. The Abramoff chatter "got people questioning that."

Democrats are making the most of the fears. After DeLay's announcement they turned their attention to Burns, labeling him "the face of Republican corruption." After weeks of critical ads last year, support for Burns collapsed. In December a Mason-Dixon poll gave him a 6-point lead over his best-known Democratic challenger, down from 15 points in May. Campaign staffers concede they should have responded earlier to the attacks, but are now engaged in a man-the-barricades defense. Still, they find it hard to control the Abramoff news. "It's the drip-drip-drip that hurt us," said one Burns aide who declined to be named while talking about campaign strategy. "It's hard to put it to bed."

And it's not just Democrats going after Burns. A Republican has also stepped forward to challenge him. Bob Keenan, a tall, rumpled former innkeeper who leads the GOP in Montana's Senate, was a member of Burns's campaign steering committee until last month, when he turned on the incumbent. Listening in on a routine conference call, Keenan grew exasperated: "I just said, 'Are you ever going to talk about the elephant in the room? This Abramoff situation. People on the streets are very concerned about the November election'." There was no reply. Not long after, Keenan entered the race. No one expects him to defeat Burns, but he will make it impossible for the senator to blame his problems on Democratic hit men.

Wary Republicans are waiting to hear what Burns has to say. The last place he wants to be seen is Washington, D.C. When the Senate finished up business last Friday and closed up for a two-week recess, the senator rushed back home. There are endless speeches and fund-raisers ahead, and Conrad Burns can no longer afford to phone it in.