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WASHINGTON - An orchestrated campaign to rehabilitate Congressman Gary Condit's political image begins tomorrow night with a half-hour interview on ABC television's Primetime Thursday.
Fully 115 days after Chandra Levy, the young former federal intern with whom Condit reluctantly admitted a sexual liaison, disappeared without a trace, the California politician will break his self-imposed silence.
His decision comes as hope of finding Levy's body is fading fast.
``He's not naive. He understands the consequences of his silence,'' Richie Ross, Condit's campaign manager since 1982, told ABC News. ``You know, he's a smart guy, so he understands the price he's paying for remaining silent now.''
Condit will face off with ABC's Connie Chung tomorrow night at 10.
The interview - Condit reportedly requested that it be with a female journalist - marks the kickoff of a rehabilitation effort being managed by his political advisers: high-priced Washington public relations guru Marina Ein and Condit's well-connected criminal lawyer, Abbe Lowell.
Chung won what is being described as a network ``sweepstakes'' to interview Condit. She is a friend and social acquaintance of Ein.
Once Condit chose ABC, there reportedly was a fierce competition among Chung, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer to land the interview.
David Westin, president of ABC News, insists ``there are no restrictions at all'' on the Condit interview.
A spokesperson for the network told The Star's Betsy Powell yesterday that Chung will pull no punches.
``I would imagine she will try to ask as many (of the) questions that most of us would want to ask of the congressman,'' he said from New York.
While the network accepted no restrictions on the questions Chung could ask, it did agree to a time limit.
``The only ground rule is that it's a 30-minute live-to-tape interview. That was the only restriction placed on it,'' the spokesperson said. ``Live-to-tape means no editing will occur before the broadcast.''
Westin said he had no problem agreeing to the conditions.
``I don't see it as giving anything up, because if they had said `do it live,' we would have done that,'' he told Associated Press. ``I thought it was perfectly appropriate.''
Tomorrow's interview will run after a brief set-up story and be followed by a two-minute recap by Chung, Westin said. Condit's representatives have not revealed why Chung, rather than another reporter, got the interview - but she was said to have been dogged in trying to secure the scoop, travelling to Washington to meet personally with lawyer Lowell.
Chung's interviewing style got her in trouble during a 1995 interview where former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich's mother called Hillary Rodham Clinton a ``bitch.''
For 10 weeks after the disappearance of Levy, Condit's staff denied a romance between the 53-year-old congressman and the 24-year-old former Bureau of Prisons intern.
Condit's only statement during that time, in writing, described her as ``a good friend.''
It wasn't until the congressman's third interview with Washington, D.C., police and FBI officers that he finally admitted, in the presence of his newly-hired lawyer Lowell, that a sexual affair had indeed occurred.
Subsequently, the married father of two was seen in nearby Alexandria, Va., getting out of a car and disposing of a watch gift box, just days before police were scheduled to search his downtown Washington apartment.
Much remains unexplained about Condit's behaviour, including why he has ducked questions about Levy, whether he asked other past girlfriends to deny their affairs with him and whether his actions hindered the Levy investigation in the critical early weeks when clues were still fresh.
However Ross said the voters in Condit's Modesto, Calif., constituency have largely been supportive of him for two decades now, and the politician ``trusts that his relationship with the voters will heal.''
Condit plans to send 200,000 personal letters to his constituents - who include Levy's parents. He also plans to meet them at a traditional fall ``Condit Country'' barbecue event before beginning formal preparations to run for re-election next year.
Up until early this week, it appeared CBS would get Condit, since its news anchor Dan Rather had long ignored the Levy story.
Last weekend, CBS's 60 Minutes co-host Mike Wallace told MSNBC's Tim Russert that he thought CBS would land the interview - and that he wanted to do it.
``I can tell you,'' Wallace said, ``that if he gets (fellow 60 Minutes co-host) Leslie Stahl, he's gonna wish it was me, that's for sure.''
The Condit interview also mirrors a strategy adopted by former president Bill Clinton when he sought the Democratic party nomination in 1992.
Clinton's campaign had been rocked by allegations of an affair with nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers. So he went on 60 Minutes with his wife Hillary and faced questions from co-host Steve Kroft.
He went on to win the nomination.
Many pundits are questioning whether Clinton's affair with former intern Monica Lewinsky so changed the U.S. political landscape that voters will now forgive extra-marital affairs.
Ross said he believes all Condit has to prove to voters is that he did nothing to harm Levy.
``I'm sure that a fair number of people who are advisers to Gary Condit are saying `just wait it out and you can pull a Clinton on this.'
``But the truth is Clinton has done a lot for this country. What has Gary Condit done?'' former presidential adviser David Gergen told CNBC.
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