Craig Resigns; GOP Breathes Sigh of Relief

You could almost hear the Republican sighs of relief as Larry Craig stepped to the microphones today and announced he would be resigning from the Senate.

"It is with sadness and deep regret that I announce it is my intent to resign from the Senate effective Sept. 30," said Craig, flanked by his family, Idaho's governor and other Idaho officials.

"I apologize for what I have caused," Craig added. "I am deeply sorry."

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, issued a terse statement, saying, "Sen. Larry Craig made a difficult decision, but the right one."

The White House also said Craig's resignation was "the right decision," noting that the president called Craig to wish him well.

The announcement could not have come fast enough for scandal-weary Republicans, who lost their majorities in the House and Senate in 2006 at least in part because of public outrage over former GOP Rep. Mark Foley's alleged indiscretions with congressional pages.

The Foley scandal came on the heels of a series of corruption scandals in which Republican lawmakers admitted to accepting bribes.

Earlier this year, another Republican senator, David Vitter, apologized after his phone number appeared in the "little black book" of a woman known as the "D.C. madam."

"The Republicans have been hit from so many directions," said ABC News analyst Cokie Roberts. When news about Craig broke, "the nature of the charge, the fact that he pled guilty, the fact that this party is supposed to be the party of family values and law and order -- it was all too much for them."

Republicans are facing a difficult election season as it is, with the war in Iraq continuing to dominate the campaign. In 2008, they will be defending 22 Senate seats.

The map got tougher for them this week, with the announced retirement of Virginia Sen. John Warner, whose seat will now be in play.

Craig's seat itself may not be in play, since Idaho is a staunchly Republican state and the governor will be able to appoint a Republican replacement, who will then be able to run as an incumbent. That might not have been the case had he stayed.

"Republicans in Washington will breathe a real sigh of relief," ABC News' Chief Washington Correspondent George Stephanopoulos told ABC News Radio after the resignation. "Had he decided to stay in and fight it out, not only would he have taken a safe seat and made it vulnerable in 2008, I think he also would have also tainted all Republican senators with that taint of scandal."

The scandal certainly won't help the party, in Idaho or elsewhere.

"Republicans over the next two or three months want to turn the page on the past four years," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "The problem with the Craig scandal, controversy, embarrassment, is it reminds people what they don't like about the Republican Party."

But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told ABC News Radio the national Republicans made the right moves by forcing out Craig now.

"There's a long tradition in American politics of turning the page on Labor Day," he said. "Almost no one outside of Idaho will remember this by the time of the election."

Sabato added there were advantages to the move besides the timing.

"Whenever it's raised," he said, "the Republicans can say, correctly, 'We swept out our own house.'"

Not surprisingly, Republican presidential candidates were among the first to distance themselves from Craig.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- who is trying to position himself as the conservative choice in the race -- was quick to announce Craig's resignation as the Senate liaison to his campaign, and called Craig's actions "disgusting."

Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee publicly urged Craig to resign.

Craig told reporters that he was stepping down so as not to become "an unfair distraction" -- since he plans to continue to fight to clear his name. He has retained a lawyer, and said he plans to try to reverse his guilty plea.

"I have little control over what people choose to believe, but clearing my name is important to me and my family," he said.

His fellow Republicans just hope he keeps it out of the headlines -- at least for the next 14 months.

ABC News' David Kerley, Liz Marlantes and Michael S. James contributed to this report.