CERES— By the time Rep. Gary Condit’s televised interview with ABC-TV reporter Connie Chung had ended, so, it seemed, had much of his support in his rural Central Valley congressional district.
“He interviewed the way I expected he would, but I’m disappointed,” said Karen Johnson, a 43-year-old Modesto business owner and former supporter. “He continues to be evasive in his answers, and my perception is that his bigger interest is in protecting his own interests.”
Condit and his advisers had hoped to save his 29-year political career by sending a letter to his constituents and then following with a series of television and print interviews.
They hoped to explain Condit’s months-long silence after the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old Modesto resident and former Washington intern. While a police source said Condit admitted having an affair with Levy, Condit evaded questions Thursday night about whether the relationship was sexual.
If he hoped to help himself, said Bryan Justin Marks, 25, of Ceres, student body president at Modesto Junior College, Condit failed.
Condit was “extremely evasive,” Marks said. “His body language suggests he has something to hide.”
“He’s not someone who I would want to represent this district,” said Destiny Alvarez, a 22-year-old Modesto Junior College student.
Throughout the day Thursday, as Condit’s letter hit district mailboxes and then word of his interview performance spread, the number of vocal supporters shrank while doubters grew.
Public relations consultants and political professionals also thought Condit blew a critical opportunity.
“The public is going to view this as entirely self-serving,” said Eve Epstein, a New York-based communications expert who helps government and corporate leaders refine their images.
Condit, said Harlan Brock, a 49-year-old father of three in Ceres, is still hiding something.
“I think he has more involvement than he says he has,” said Brock, who said he supported Condit before but not any more. “If you’re innocent, why do you wait so long to prove it?”
The Chung interview, said University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Bruce Cain, was “horrible” for Condit. He couldn’t even own up to things that are kind of common knowledge,” such as the affair with Levy.
Active Condit supporters, primarily those involved in Central Valley Democratic politics, said they thought Condit helped his cause Thursday.
“I thought he cleared up some misinformation; I thought he was honest,” said Sandra Lucas, chairwoman of the Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee. “On the whole, I thought it was very good.”
Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino, who was unimpressed by Condit’s letter, said Condit did better on television.
“I think he has mended some fences,” Sabatino said. “I think he has quieted down some curiosity.”
Condit’s claims of cooperation with authorities and reminders of what he has done for constituents may not be enough, said Joel Aberbach, a UCLA political scientist.
“If I were one of his constituents I’d be pretty distressed to find out that he isn’t the person that he said he was for so long, and no letter can overcome that,” Aberbach said.
First elected to the Central Valley congressional district in 1989, Condit has long attracted solid majorities, drawing votes from Democrats as well as Republicans who appreciate his centrist positions. His post-disappearance conduct has provided an opening to opponents, but few serious candidates have emerged.
That may be the only way for the Democrats, who need only six more seats to take control of the House of Representatives, to preserve what’s left of Condit’s seat, for either him or a successor, said Tony Quinn, a Republican former redistricting consultant and co-editor of the California Target Book, a political guide.
“He’s trying to get some political credibility back without admitting more than he has to,” Quinn said. “My view is it’s not going to matter because he’s not going to have a district to run from.”
In 1998, at the height of the controversy surrounding President Clinton’s relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, Condit criticized Clinton for not being open enough.
Now, however, Condit is being compared to Clinton and found wanting.
“Gary Condit is no Bill Clinton,” Epstein said. “He’s no comeback kid.”
Associated Press reporter Kiley Russell contributed to this report.