March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

He was once so popular with constituents that campaigning for reelection was a mere formality. But these days the name Gary Condit brings to mind public deception more than it does public service. Which likely explains why voters in California’s 18th District handed the seven-term congressman his hat in a March 5 Democratic primary.

That his former aide Dennis Cardoza defeated him was no surprise. That Condit, 53, ran at all was the real shocker. His continuing refusal to discuss his relationship with Chandra Levy, the ex-intern who vanished last May, made him the object of public scorn and seemed to doom him politically. Yet Condit did not fade quietly from the scene. He announced his bid for reelection in December—despite a grand jury investigation into Levy’s disappearance. “People in the party were amazed at his audacity,” says Gail Kaufman, a California Democratic political consultant. “No level of humiliation was too much for him.”

Last fall, his 18th Congressional District was remapped, depriving him of many of his die-hard supporters. Since January, his bare-bones campaign, run mainly by his son Chad, 34, and daughter Cadee, 26, has raised less than $30,000, a fraction of his usual war chest; Condit even had to use $50,000 he made selling his Washington condo to buy radio spots. Taunts like “Where’s the body?” greeted him at every stop.

Still, Condit shook hands tirelessly and was “his usual masterful political self,” says Modesto radio talk show host Rob Johnson. “His whole campaign was ‘I’m a victim of the media.'” Condit even turned up on Larry King Live to float the novel theory that his reelection would help Chandra’s parents. “I would make sure that this case…doesn’t fall through the cracks,” he said. “I want to do it for the Levy family.” (The Levys have yet to comment on this election.)

Condit pulled to within eight points of Cardoza in one poll last month, but in the end his damaged credibility was too much to overcome. “He’s still in denial,” says Alan Hoffenblum, an editor of a nonpartisan publication that tracked the campaign. “He looks around and says, ‘What did I do wrong?’ He just doesn’t get it.” Now, at least, he’ll have more time to try and figure it out.

You May Like