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TUPPER: Tim Johnson's health is an issue

Seth Tupper

Tim Johnson wheeled his scooter into the room a little too quickly.

He was trying, it seemed to me, to overcome what he knows is his first impression: an aging man with mobility and speech problems and, lately, a broken shoulder resulting from a fall. Upon making his entrance, he boomed a greeting to match his enthusiastic pace.

While he positioned himself at the table across from me, a staffer placed a binder in front of him and opened it to a predetermined page. I glanced down and saw that it was a cheat sheet. There was a title that said something like "Questions for The Daily Republic." Various subheadings referred to issues that I and Assistant Editor Tom Lawrence were likely to ask about, and bulleted points below the subheadings were there, presumably, for Johnson to read in case his speech betrayed his brain.

That's the new normal for South Dakota's senior senator.

In 2006, as he was climbing toward the height of his power and influence in the Senate, he was waylaid by a stroke-like episode diagnosed as cerebral arteriovenous malformation -- an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in Johnson's brain that caused blood vessels to rupture and bleed. Facing possible death, he underwent an operation and began the long journey toward recovery.

It seems clear six years later that Johnson, a 65-year-old Democrat, will be dealing with the effects of what he calls "AVM" for the rest of his life. Thursday, he learned he may be in for the political fight of his life: fending off a challenge from former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds, a Republican.

Granted, Johnson has won his share of tough races. This is the man who ousted Republican incumbent Larry Pressler from the Senate and survived a challenge from his future Senate colleague John Thune.

But Rounds will be Johnson's first formidable opponent post-AVM. In 2008, with the public still highly sympathetic to his health condition, Johnson easily beat a virtual unknown in the person of Joel Dykstra. Many observers thought Johnson would retire before that election to focus on his health. Many of those same observers thought he would retire before 2014, having achieved a career-capping rise to the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Banking Committee.

Certainly, Johnson has little if anything left to prove as a politician. He has never lost an election since winning a seat in the South Dakota House of Representatives in 1978. He was a legislator for eight years, a U.S. representative for 10 years, and is serving his 16th year in the U.S. Senate. By the time he finishes this term at the end of 2014, he'll have served 36 consecutive years in elective office, 28 of those in Congress. If he can win and serve another full six-year term in the Senate, Johnson will tie Karl Mundt's South Dakota record of 34 years of congressional service.

After Rounds jumped into the race Thursday morning, Johnson stopped short of officially announcing his own re-election bid but said he will make an announcement later next year and added, "I fully intend to put together a winning campaign."

Among the many things that interest me about a potential Johnson vs. Rounds race is the degree to which Johnson's health might be discussed. Dykstra appeared afraid to bring it up in 2008. Perhaps Johnson's AVM episode was still too raw, and maybe Dykstra anticipated a voter backlash if he made it an issue. Or, maybe he thought Johnson had recovered enough that his AVM was irrelevant.

But anyone who has seen or spoken with Johnson in the last few years knows that his health is an ever-present challenge for him. It is an issue, and it should be fair game in the 2014 election. It's perfectly legitimate to question whether his health is impacting his ability to effectively represent South Dakota.

AVM obviously changed Johnson, but has it made him less effective? I don't know. One thing I do know is that interviewing him is awkward. He struggles at times to get his words out, and he sometimes appears to get so focused on the process of speaking that he forgets the topic at hand.

That seemed to happen once during our meeting with him Oct. 12 in Mitchell, when he forced out a series of thoughts in his slow, deliberate and sometimes slurred way, and then stopped suddenly in mid-thought. Everyone else in the room appeared to be awkwardly wondering if the senator would continue on his own, or if he'd need a gentle conversational nudge. Eventually he ended the silence by simply nodding and uttering something like, "so, yeah," as if to indicate he had meant to stop speaking.

It seemed like a coping mechanism, one of several Johnson has adopted. I asked him about his speech and whether his brain works faster than his mouth.

"I have no trouble with cognition," he said, implying that only his speech is impaired, not his brain.

I believe that, and I admire his courage and tenacity. I also admire his brand of politics. In today's hyper-partisan political world, he is a rolling metaphor for moderation, a political philosophy that has been pushed to the brink of extinction.

But Rounds, too, is something of a moderate. Though clearly more conservative than Johnson on social issues, Rounds claims as his idol the late former South Dakota governor Peter Norbeck, a Depression-era progressive who bore little resemblance to the more conservative wing that dominates today's Republican Party.

When I asked Sen. Johnson last month about the prospect of a challenge from Rounds, his quick retort seemed like another coping mechanism he'd adopted to deal with what had become a routine question.

"Bring it on," he quipped.

He got his wish. Is he up to the challenge? If there's anything we should know by now about Tim Johnson -- the man who beat Pressler and Thune and his own bleeding brain -- it's that underestimating him has always been a mistake.