Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has twice said this week that he'll run again in 2014, at age 72.
My take: He hasn't made up his mind.
There are three reasons for this gubernatorial bluster:
First, Otter's keen to avoid an prolonged lame-duckhood. Ever since he took office, his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have had the upper hand. They crushed his signature initiative -- raising money for roads and bridges -- and have driven the tough budget decisions.
In the 2012 session, Otter faces a large group of lawmakers hostile to his plan to establish a state-run health insurance exchange instead of waiting for the US Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act which mandates the exchanges.
Creating a state exchange is the top priority of Otter's friends at the Arid Club, as well as Main Street business folks who much prefer state officials to feds.
That issue connects to No. 2: Otter's broke. His last campaign report, for the six months ending June 30, showed $206,000 in debt and $10,444 in cash.
The governor is a thrifty man who doesn't relish bleeding red ink. He needs the well-heeled to help retire his debt. If they think he's not likely to run, they'll be less inclined to bail him out.
It's no coincidence that this breast-beating comes this week, first in a Tuesday appearance on "America's Morning News," a national talk show aired in Boise on KINF AM 730, and Wednesday in Coeur d'Alene at the North Idaho Governor's Ball. (Otter spokesman Jon Hanian confirmed to me the accuracy of Wednesday night's Coeur d'Alene Press report on Otter's vow to run).
On Jan. 7, Otter is hosting a major fundraiser, the 2012 Governor's Dinner, to benefit his campaign. Tickets are $500 per person and are being hawked on the campaign's Facebook page. (Curiously, the Otter for Idaho campaign site has been taken down, perhaps an economy measure). Gold Sponsors can pay $5,000 for a table of eight and Silver Sponsors get four tickets for $2,500. Paying more includes tickets to the GOP Legislative Ball.
Which brings us to No. 3: Otter's feeling blue about recent editorials that say he's "mailing it in" and leaving the heavy lifting to Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who insiders have long perceived as Otter's hand-picked successor. Since Nov. 13, Otter has spent three weeks out of state on junkets or vacation: In Hawaii, Florida and Las Vegas, opening wide the door to claims he's just going through the motions.
That he backed away from leading a trade mission to Mexico and Brazil early this month and sent Little instead isn't consistent with a governor in reelection mode. This is a guy who has long considered himself a brilliant salesman, first at the J.R. Simplot Co., then as lieutenant governor and now as governor. Otter sent an unmistakable message by choosing to go to the National Finals Rodeo: My downtime is more important that the state's economic health.
In his Tuesday radio appearance, Otter commiserated about his presidential pick's troubles among GOP voters, saying Mitt Romney shouldn't pay attention to the "general media."
"If you believe everything that they write, then you get to feeling bad about it," Otter said.
Otter's one of those politicians who really wants to be liked, sorta like Bill Clinton, a comparison he may not relish, but apt.
In 2010, he was asked at an Idaho Press Club event how the media might mend its relationship with him. Otter showed his tender core, saying, "I'd just like - I would like to see some compassion, maybe that's the word I'm looking for, some compassion. This is a tough, tough position to be in. And it's not fun."
Don't get me wrong. Otter may well run in 2014, though if I were forced to make odds, I'd say it's 2-1 against him making a race as a septuagenarian. In addition to Little, Congressman Raul Labrador, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden are all ready for higher office. They've waited their turn and it would simply be ill-mannered for Otter not to step aside and let the youngsters have their day.
Otter told "America's Morning News" that he used to support term limits -- "Go serve a few years and then get out" -- but has reconsidered.
"I'm planning on running again in 2014," he said. "It's a ways off, but I see no reason not to because we put a lot of good things in place. I want to see those things mature and I want to start a movement here in Idaho that'll spread across the United States."
That's an ambitious aim, and he may well mean it.
But I seriously doubt that Otter has decided to seek a third consecutive four-year term two years before he has to. The last governor to gain such notoriety for out-of-state travel, Republican Bob Smylie, had worn out his welcome when he sought a fourth term in 1966 and suffered a career-ending embarrassment, losing to Don Samuelson.
Otter may believe in his heart that he's "planning to run," and that's prudent. But planning and doing are altogether different. It's a decision I don't believe he'll make until 2013.
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