Long before the real primaries, presidential candidates compete in the endorsement primary, launching all-out efforts to land high-profile supporters to lead their campaigns in key states.
Prominent backers can bring a ready-made organization of volunteers and fund-raisers, plus lend credibility to candidates, especially in states where they are not well known.
But the story of US Senator Larry E. Craig's arrest is one more reminder of the potential downsides for candidates: guilt by association, questions about judgment in the friends they pick, and several news cycles of bad publicity. To avoid lasting damage, campaigns try to move quickly to limit the fallout from the story.
On Monday night, Mitt Romney's campaign swiftly cut loose the Idaho Republican, announcing he had resigned as its cochair man in the Senate and in his home state. Romney acted just hours after Craig's office confirmed reports that the senator pleaded guilty earlier this month to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. The case arose from his arrest in June by an undercover police officer investigating lewd behavior in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
At a news conference in Boise yesterday, Craig insisted that he had done nothing wrong before his arrest and that he is not gay. He said he was wrong to plead guilty and plans to consult a lawyer about reviewing his case, which resulted in fines, a year of unsupervised probation, and a suspended 10-day sentence.
In his first public comments on the case, Romney distanced himself from Craig, but declined to say yesterday whether Craig should resign from the Senate.
"Once again, we've found people in Washington have not lived up to the level of respect and dignity that we would expect for somebody that gets elected to a position of high influence," Romney said on CNBC's "Kudlow & Company."
Romney, who is casting himself as a Washington outsider, also likened the Craig case to sex scandals involving former Florida congressman Mark Foley and President Bill Clinton.
"I think it reminds us of the fact that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint, and they somehow think that if they vote the right way on issues of significance or they can speak a good game, that we'll just forgive and forget," Romney said, according to a transcript provided by CNBC. "And we've seen disappointment in the White House, we've seen it in the Senate, we've seen it in Congress. And frankly, it's disgusting."
Campaigns typically do little vetting of key supporters. Many backers have been through the election process themselves, and presumably opposition research has already uncovered any major problems.
"It's impossible to know everything about someone, and you can't always account for the behavior of others," said Kevin Madden, Romney's campaign spokesman. "So there will be times when a supporter's actions are inappropriate. How a campaign handles it is a measure of whether it has any real effect, and in this case, the resignation was quick and certain."
The Romney campaign also acted immediately when a top fund-raiser, Alan B. Fabian, was indicted this month by a Maryland grand jury in connection with an alleged $32 million fraud scheme. Romney's campaign announced that Fabian had resigned as cochairman of its national finance committee and that it would return his $2,300 contribution, but not money that Fabian raised from others.
Republicans Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and Democrat Bill Richardson have suffered similar embarrassments to their presidential campaigns in recent months.
In most cases, they quickly and unceremoniously jettisoned the supporters who ran afoul of the law.
In June, Giuliani's South Carolina chairman, the state treasurer, Thomas Ravenel, was indicted on federal cocaine charges, and quickly quit the campaign. In July, US Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the Giuliani campaign's Southern regional chairman, admitted "a very serious sin in my past" after his telephone number appeared in phone records of an alleged prostitution service. A Giuliani aide said yesterday that Vitter retains his position within the campaign.
Also in July, a Florida state representative, Bob Allen, resigned as McCain's cochairman in the state after being arrested on a charge that he solicited an undercover police officer for sex in the men's room of a public park.
Earlier this month, Kristian Forland resigned as the eastern Nevada field director of Richardson's campaign after it was learned he had worked at a legal brothel and was wanted in California on four charges of writing bad checks.
"I don't know if you can draw any general lessons about the state of American politics from this kind of thing," said Kenneth R. Mayer, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "But it does seem like there's more of it going on this year.
"In all these organizations, you've got probably thousands of people involved. It may just be a reflection of the fact we've got 20 people running for president now," Mayer said.
"Given the kinds of scrutiny that presidential candidates are subjected to now, it's awfully hard to keep secrets," he said.
Romney's campaign is also learning how difficult it is to sever ties in the online age.
After news broke Monday of Craig's guilty plea, Romney's camp not only announced that Craig had stepped down from his campaign posts, but it also blocked public access to a video featuring Craig on the campaign's YouTube channel.
However, yesterday, liberal bloggers and others resurrected the testimonial from online limbo, and it was easily accessible to the public again on YouTube.
The video is a brief on-the-street interview with Craig in which he praises Romney's leadership in turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Craig also says he admires Romney "first and foremost" because he has "very strong family values."
"That's something I grew up with and believe in."