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The Candidate?

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This past summer Americans were consumed with the tale of California Rep. Gary Condit and Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old Washington, D.C., intern who vanished on May 1. In August, Condit, who reportedly admitted to police he’d had an affair with Levy but has said he had nothing to do with her disappearance, launched a disastrous media blitz in hopes of salvaging his reputation. As part of his offensive, his fiercest champions—son Chad, 34, and daughter Cadee, 26—flew to Manhattan to defend their father in a round of TV spots.

That was Sept. 10. The next morning, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon left thousands dead, and a traumatized nation forgot about the troubled congressman from Ceres, Calif. Jay Leno would later tell his audience, “Gary Condit could have an affair and get bitten on the ass by a shark and not get into the newspapers now.”

Yet if he fell off the public radar screen, Condit, 53, has hardly retreated into the shadows. Despite rebuffs from erstwhile allies such as House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, he is expected to announce in the next few weeks a run for an eighth term in 2002. “We’re the underdog in a big way,” says Chad. “Gary understands that.”

Before he takes on the GOP, Condit has a hurdle to clear. On Oct. 23 State Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, Condit’s former protégé, declared that he would run against him in a March Democratic primary. “The district needs to heal,” says Cardoza, 42. “I’ve got to show it a new path.” With the unofficial backing of the state Democratic party, Cardoza is a heavy favorite. Still, Chad and Cadee, who in August left jobs with Gov. Gray Davis because he criticized their father’s behavior in the Levy case, have been soliciting the 3,000 signatures needed by Nov. 22 to put Condit on the ballot. “We went to Gary and [my mother] Carolyn and said, ‘We feel we need to do this,'” says Chad, who, like his sister, calls both parents by their first names. “Gary was a little surprised. Mom was actually more enthusiastic.”

Carolyn has stuck by her husband of 34 years, spending less time at their California home and more time with him at their D.C. condo. “[Her life] has changed; she’s been in the tabloids,” Chad says. “But she’s got her routines, her friends. She’s doing the best she can.” In fact, accepting an award for Condit’s support of the University of California at Merced Oct. 24, Carolyn made her first public statement postscandal: “I’m behind Gary Condit 100 percent.”

In contrast with the start of the congressional session, when he often holed up in the Capitol gym, her husband has lately been more visible on the House floor, and he sits on the new Terrorism and Homeland Security subcommittee. But Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman suggests Condit is mistaken if he thinks new national priorities will give him a reprieve. “A lot of things did change on Sept. 11, for everybody—except Gary Condit,” she says. “Unfortunately Chandra Levy is still missing.”

Although the Levy case remains open, it is being pursued by just two detectives. Officer Tony O’Leary says D.C. police have been stretched thin by efforts to heighten security in light of the hijackings and the ongoing anthrax scare. “We’re still getting tips and we follow every lead,” he says. “But, no, we are not exactly inundated with new leads.” An FBI spokesman concedes the bureau has also pulled back, adding, “We are one more month out, and the longer it goes on, the less likely that we will resolve this favorably to the family.”

Levy’s parents, Bob and Susan, refuse to comment on any impending Condit campaign. On their street in Modesto, fading yellow ribbons are joined by red, white and blue flags. “We’re not going to forget about her,” says Susan, who, as a precaution against anthrax spores, now wears rubber gloves when opening the letters of support the family still receives. “Bob and I have felt like we’ve been in a war, and now the whole country is experiencing the same feeling.” Indeed, “I still watch Chandra videos every day,” her husband told The Washington Post. “I cry every day.” Condit’s family has reasons of its own to wish for Levy’s safe return. “I would love for Chandra to walk in and tell the truth about certain things,” Chad says. “Gary didn’t do anything to her.”

Candidate Condit must at last make that clear to voters—without, it appears, Chandra’s help. “His constituents still very much want answers,” says Stanislaus County Democratic official Sandra Lucas. “I think he believes being on the Homeland Security Committee is enough to get him reelected. But this area has been shell-shocked by the Summer of Condit, and it is not enough.”

Richard Jerome

Champ Clark in Los Angeles and Colleen O’Connor in Washington, D.C.