Conn. Senate race pauses for Dodd, who has cancer

Associated Press Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- The state's senior U.S. senator, Christopher Dodd, has been heavily criticized for months, suffering from poor poll numbers and questions about discount mortgages he received.

The criticisms stopped Friday, when the 65-year-old Democrat announced he's been diagnosed with an early stage of prostate cancer and will have surgery soon.

Two of Dodd's potential Republican rivals in the 2010 election issued get well wishes, saying he was in their families' prayers. And Chris Healy, chairman of the state Republicans and a vocal critic, was one of the first to e-mail reporters a statement wishing Dodd "the very best in his treatment and rehabilitation."

"There's certain things that are political, and there are certain things that are personal," Healy said when asked about his statement. "I think the more we respect that line, maybe people's image of the political class might improve."

But it's doubtful the pleasantries will last long, political experts said, especially with the positive prognosis for recovery for Dodd, who plans to have surgery at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center shortly after Congress recesses next week and then rest at his Connecticut home before resuming his full-time schedule at the end of the month.

"This will be a pause in the campaign," said Douglas Schwartz, poll director at Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But it will be temporary, and in a short time they'll get right back at it."

Dodd, seeking his fifth term in the Senate, faces a tough re-election campaign. A July 23 Quinnipiac Poll showed Dodd trailing former Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, 48 percent to 39 percent. Meanwhile, 52 percent surveyed disapprove of the job Dodd's doing.

Dodd has been a key player in the Senate this year, stepping in for his ailing friend and colleague Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who has brain cancer, to shepherd a national health care plan through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The panel completed work on the partisan bill July 15 and is waiting for the Senate Finance panel to come up with a companion plan.

The Democratic leadership hopes to meld the two plans in September, when Congress returns from its monthlong recess.

Dodd also is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, where he got caught up in the furor earlier this year over $165 million in bonuses insurance company American International Group Inc., or AIG, paid some of its employees while receiving billions of dollars in federal bailout money.

And he's been continually dogged by questions about mortgages he and his wife received.

The Senate ethics committee is investigating whether Dodd violated standards of conduct by receiving mortgage discounts from the VIP program at Countrywide Financial Corp. Dodd has acknowledged participating in a Countrywide VIP program, which he said he thought referred to upgraded customer service. He denied asking for or receiving any special treatment when he refinanced his homes in Washington and East Haddam, Conn., in 2003.

Dodd's popularity in Connecticut also dipped during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he moved his family to Iowa for months to focus on that state's early caucuses. He dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the caucuses.

Schwartz, the Quinnipiac pollster, said he doubts that Dodd's health problems will help him in the polls.

"It might get him a little bit of a sympathy vote for five minutes," he said. "I don't think it's got any long-term effect. He feels fine, he's going to be fine and we'll get back to the issues of the campaign."

Dodd told reporters on Friday that when he returns to pursue his re-election he'll be "a little leaner, a little meaner."

During the news conference at his Hartford office, Dodd linked his cancer to the debate with which he's been involved in Washington over health care reform, likely to be a hot campaign issue. He said his experience demonstrated the importance of health insurance coverage for annual physicals.

Signs of Dodd's prostate cancer came up in a physical he had in June and later were confirmed from a biopsy.

The state Democrats' chairwoman, Nancy DiNardo, said Dodd wanted to "make sure that other people can have the same type of insurance that he has."

Healy, the state GOP chair, said he also doesn't believe Dodd's cancer diagnosis ultimately will have much of an effect on the campaign.

"Senator Dodd is going to continue to run and wants to be treated without any special favor," Healy said. "I really don't see it changing much of anything."

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