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Senator makes first appearance since falling ill

Sen. Tim Johnson, speaking slowly and slurring some words more than eight months after experiencing a life-threatening brain hemorrhage, announced Tuesday to state residents: “I am back.”
Tim Johnson
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., rolls his wheelchair on Tuesday onto the stage to cheers in his first public appearance since falling ill eight months ago. He has not said if he is running for re-election in 2008.Dirk Lammers / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Tim Johnson, speaking slowly and slurring some words more than eight months after experiencing a life-threatening brain hemorrhage, announced Tuesday to state residents: “I am back.”

In his first public appearance since falling ill, the 60-year-old Democrat spoke for about 15 minutes to a cheering crowd at the Sioux Falls Convention Center. As the state’s senior senator was brought out in a wheelchair, he waved his left arm to the crowd, then rose to his feet.

Johnson’s face and his speech clearly showed the effects of the trauma, but he used his sense of humor to assure supporters he will return to the Senate as early as next week.

“Hard work is something in which I take great pride. So, let me say this tonight going forward: I am back,” he said to loud applause.

“Of course, I believe I have an unfair edge over most of my colleagues right now. My mind works faster than my mouth does. Washington would probably be a better place if more people took a moment to think before they spoke.”

2008 election looms
The senator, who has not officially said whether he is running for re-election in 2008, hinted he would. “My will to keep fighting for you has never been stronger,” he said.

Tuesday’s celebration was a carefully choreographed gathering that took on the appearance of a campaign event; choirs, religious leaders and a string of politicians praised Johnson.

“It was one of the most moving experiences that I can recall,” said former Sen. George McGovern, 85.

Bryan Wellman, a neurosurgeon at Sanford Neurosurgery in Sioux Falls, said he watched the speech on television and was impressed with Johnson’s progress.

“For what he has dealt with, he has done marvelous,” said Wellman, who has never treated the senator.

He predicted that Johnson’s slurred speech would go away as the weakness in his face got stronger. Wellman also noted that the senator had no problem with names and didn’t avoid certain types of words.

During his recovery, Johnson remained in the Washington area but made no public appearances. He has been undergoing speech and physical therapy and is expected to use a scooter to travel longer distances in the Capitol.

Closely watched appearance
Democrats hope Johnson’s lingering physical ailments won’t dissuade voters from supporting him.

“I think it’s less how you look and more about how you care and how much you can connect with voters,” said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus, who does not work for Johnson.

Two Republicans have said they will seek Johnson’s seat: state Rep. Joel Dykstra and Sam Kephart, a self-employed businessman.

Kephart wished Johnson and his family well Tuesday but he didn’t shy from taking shots, criticizing the senator’s usually soft-spoken demeanor.

“It’s not a time for quiet politics,” Kephart said. “It’s a time for building bridges and leading with your chin and taking risks.”

Nevada Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has said Johnson is still a GOP target next year. Johnson won re-election in 2002 by just 524 votes.

By the end of June, Senate colleagues had raised $1.3 million for a possible re-election bid.

Johnson was rushed from his Senate office to George Washington University Hospital in December after becoming disoriented on a conference call with reporters.

He underwent emergency surgery for arteriovenous malformation, a condition that causes arteries and veins in the brain to grow abnormally large, become tangled and sometimes burst.

He was stricken a month after November elections that gave the Democrats a one-seat majority in the Senate, and the attack raised the possibility that, if he died or resigned, GOP Gov. Mike Rounds would appoint a Republican successor and return the Senate to that party’s control.