MODESTO, Calif., Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Rep. Gary Condit had harsh words for the news media over what he saw as a move by scandal-mongering "pundits and talking heads" to badger him into giving up the congressional seat he has held for 12 years.
The Modesto Democrat, whose district was safe enough to be known as "Condit Country," told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Tuesday that he would not have felt comfortable if he had decided against seeking re-election next year due to the controversy over his relationship with a missing Modesto woman.
"I don't know that I could be comfortable letting the national press, the people in Washington, the pundits and the talking heads determine my decision," Condit said.
Condit's seat would have been viewed as virtually unassailable a year ago due to his solid support at home and his growing seniority on the Hill, which he has parlayed into positions on the House Intelligence Committee and the Agriculture Committee -- a major concern to his agriculture-rich district. Things changed last spring, however, when he was linked to Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old college student from Modesto who vanished from Washington after wrapping up an internship at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Condit, who is 53 and married, has admitted knowing Levy, and the missing woman's family and media sources have said that the relationship was romantic. Although police have not officially named Condit a suspect, the relationship and Condit's refusal to discuss the alleged affair fueled some harsh criticism in the media during the summer.
He admitted to the Times in a telephone interview that the scandal was likely to be a major campaign issue, but he said it would be up to his opponents to bring it up, and that he preferred to run on his record.
"The people of the Central Valley know I've represented them in some capacity for almost 30 years," Condit said. "They absolutely know who the heck I am."
"I think if they (the voters) focus on that, focus on the record, I'll come out OK. If they're not focused on that, it's going to be hard," he added.
Condit indicated he expected to get some help from voters who support his perceived defiance of the media in refusing to publicly talk about his relationship with Levy.
"People relate to this in the sense that I have been mistreated in terms of my civil liberties and in terms of the theory in this country that one is innocent until proven guilty," Condit said.
The Levy case has apparently cost Condit some high-profile support; the Modesto Bee reported Tuesday that six police chiefs and sheriffs in Condit's district were planning to announce their endorsement of state Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, Condit's opponent in the March 5 Democratic primary.
"I personally feel more comfortable with Dennis," declared Merced County Sheriff Gary T. Carlson. "I know Dennis, and I know his family, and he's the person at this time that I feel most comfortable with."
Carlson and other lawmen indicated to the Bee that while Condit had been a solid supporter of the police while in Congress, the Levy disappearance might be too much for him to overcome.
"They just believe Dennis can be more effective from this point forward," Cardoza's spokesman, Doug White, suggested.
Political analysts widely believe that Condit's chances to save his career were greatly improved on Sept. 11 when the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center swept the Levy case out of the limelight.
Condit told the Times that he hoped the media would continue to focus on the search for Levy, and chided media commentators who quickly shifted gears from analyzing the Levy case to dissecting the military campaign in Afghanistan.
"They're all experts on everything," he said in a tone the Times described as "sarcastic."
Condit's interview with the Times moved the newspaper to caution him in an editorial Tuesday not to expect Chandra Levy to fade away during the campaign despite the events of Sept. 11.
"As a campaign strategy, defiance will only get you so far," the Times opined. "Condit wants voters to look at his record. His behavior in the Levy case is part of that record."
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)