More than a month after becoming a national laughingstock, with his clumsy and colorful alleged attempts to sell a Senate seat, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is surviving -- but his luck may finally be running out.
The Illinois House is set today to vote on impeaching the embattled governor. It would be the first time in Illinois state history that a governor was impeached. If the House approves, the state Senate will conduct a trial.
He has resisted calls for his resignation. He has continued to perform his gubernatorial duties, even in the face of widespread public scorn.
He has so far ducked both impeachment and indictment, with some legal experts saying it will be difficult for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to mount an effective case against him.
His latest coup came on the national stage: Outfoxing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President-elect Barack Obama, by placing his choice for Obama's old Senate seat on a path toward being sworn in.
At a moment he was written off as politically impotent, on a path to near-certain disgrace, Blagojevich navigated complex racial politics by choosing Roland Burris -- a veteran African-American official with a far cleaner reputation than the governor himself -- to take Obama's place in the Senate.
"This is a 10-round battle, and thus far, Blagojevich is ahead on points," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist. "He embarrassed Harry Reid and Dick Durbin. Who's smarter -- the guy from Illinois who's allegedly a crook, or the guys in Washington who are allegedly clean?"
Most observers still expect things to turn out badly for Blagojevich. A legislative committee Thursday recommended that he be impeached, and most political observers say he'll almost certainly be removed from office in the coming weeks or months, to say nothing of the legal battles he still faces.
While the seating of Burris as senator would mark a personal triumph, it would also be likely to refocus attention on Blagojevich's own alleged misdeeds instead of on the Washington standoff over a Senate seat.
Still, the turn of events has left even some prominent Democrats marveling at Blagojevich's political survival skills.
"You gotta hand it to Blagojevich," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Wednesday on MSNBC. "What a maneuver! What a maneuver! When his back was against the wall he outsmarted a lot of people. … He'll probably end up in really bad trouble, but he'll have something to tell his grandchildren."
Blagojevich Aggressive in Face of Conflict
Against long odds, Blagojevich has held on by managing to look like the reasonable party in a dispute Democratic leaders didn't want to have.
"It's like two casino sharks taking over a church basement bingo game being run by some little old ladies. It was a total mismatch," said Kevin Madden, a Republican political operative based in Washington. "That doesn't mean that Blago has miraculously removed himself from legal jeopardy. But he managed to rearrange the chess board."
Blagojevich signaled an aggressive posture from the start. Unlike former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned within days of the public revelation of a sex scandal last year, Blagojevich refused to leave office despite the shocking allegations of a pay-to-play scheme regarding the open Senate seat he had the power to fill.
Instead, like Bill Clinton in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Blagojevich steadfastly maintained his innocence, and sought out allies where he could find them.
In a theatrical press conference the week after the prosecutors' criminal complaint, he quoted Rudyard Kipling in proclaiming his innocence -- notwithstanding the transcripts of taped conversations that by that time had become late-night fodder.
"I will fight this thing every step of the way. I will fight, I will fight, I will fight, till I take my very last breath. I have done nothing wrong," Blagojevich said.
State officials initially talked about stripping him of his Senate appointment powers. The attorney general went to the state Supreme Court to try to immediately remove him from office.
When those efforts sputtered, Blagojevich played his last, best card. He ignored warnings from Reid, Obama and other prominent Democrats that anyone he chose for the Senate would never be seated, and last week chose Burris for the Senate seat.
Roland Burris Choice a Masterstroke
Burris, 71, had been out of public office for 14 years. But Blagojevich knew selecting the first African-American statewide officeholder in Illinois history would raise the issue of race for the all-white Senate -- and he brought a black member of Congress, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., to the press conference to announce the pick, to make sure the point wasn't lost.
It turned out to be a political masterstroke. Obama, Reid, and other Senate Democrats initially kept up their objections, flatly refusing to seat Burris. But amid pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, they opted against a prolonged fight, and Burris is now widely expected to become a senator.
By Monday, Obama was urging Reid to find an amicable solution. And on Wednesday, just hours after Burris was barred from entering the Senate chamber, Reid signaled that resistance was crumbling and found himself defending Senate Democrats' initial reticence to swear him in.
"This is nothing that is racial," said Reid.
The series of events proved amusing to many longtime Blagojevich watchers, who have seen him outmaneuver enemies for years in Illinois. He's gained a reputation as a crafty politician -- looking for fights, comfortable when boxed into a corner and cognizant of the power of symbolism in politics.
"We really should not have been surprised that he did it -- it's in his political nature," said Richard A. Wandling, chairman of the political science department at Eastern Illinois University. "From his vantage point, it was a very smart move politically. What's interesting is how he's taken his very aggressive style of politics and taken it national. It's chutzpah."
Madden, the GOP strategist, said Blagojevich went up against some of the most powerful Democrats in the nation -- and won.
"Everyone in the arena watching this spectacle has now spent the last week focusing on how Harry Reid had his bluff called, and wondering when Burris will get seated instead of questioning if he will get seated," he said.
Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, said Blagojevich knew all along that he had the law on his side. Operating from the legal high ground, he proved himself the craftier politician.
"The great winner is Blagojevich," he said. "[National Democrats] may have created a folk hero out of a guy who everybody thought was a criminal a week ago."
Blagojevich's end game -- beyond mere survival -- remains unclear. He is still likely to be impeached and removed from office. Prosecutors continue to build a case against him.
But the governor may not care.
"I'd be really surprised if he makes it out of this," Wandling said. "But he's going to fight. … He just may not have any shame."