OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is expected to resign Thursday to clear the way for a Senate campaign in 2008, giving Republicans a welcome dose of good political news.
Johanns will be joined by President Bush to make an announcement about his future Thursday morning, the secretary's spokeswoman Terri Teuber said Wednesday, not commenting on what Johanns would say.
But state Republicans, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made, said Johanns intends to seek the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.
''Johanns is the 800-pound gorilla,'' said Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican. ''People like Mike.''
Incumbent Republicans in New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon and Minnesota face difficult challenges, and GOP retirements in Virginia and Colorado give Democrats additional targets. Democrats have also been recruiting former Sen. Bob Kerrey to return home to Nebraska to run for Hagel's seat.
Already in the race are three Republicans - Attorney General Jon Bruning, former Congressman Hal Daub and businessman Pat Flynn.
While Johanns may have competition for his party's nomination, a Republican official said the senatorial committee will make it clear quietly that it favors Johanns over other possible contenders. The official, not authorized to discuss political strategy publicly, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the senatorial committee, disputed that.
Sen. John Ensign of Nevada called the three Nebraska congressmen and Gov. Dave Heineman - all Republicans - last week to gauge support for Johanns, Terry said.
Ensign, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wanted to know ''whether we could make sure the primary was as clean as possible for Johanns,'' Terry said.
Terry said he told Ensign he wasn't ready to make an endorsement. Heineman's spokeswoman said that the governor spoke to Ensign, but that Heineman also wasn't endorsing any candidate. Rep. Adrian Smith's spokesman said he couldn't confirm whether Smith spoke with Ensign.
Messages left for Ensign on Wednesday evening weren't immediately returned, nor was a message left for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
Johanns, 57, was mayor of Lincoln from 1991 to 1998, when he was elected governor. He won re-election to a second term in 2002 and became agriculture secretary in 2005.
He has refused to say publicly whether he is interested in Hagel's seat. But on Saturday, as the state GOP dedicated its headquarters to Johanns and his wife, Stephanie, the secretary said he and his family will end up back in Nebraska when his Cabinet job is done.
He said he and his wife ''miss Nebraska every day. Our home is Nebraska. We'll be back.''
President Bush will back Johanns whether he runs or not, White House spokesman Alex Conant said.
''Secretary Johanns is an outstanding secretary of agriculture, and the president will support whatever decision he makes,'' Conant said.
In resigning, Johanns would leave his post before Congress passes a new farm bill, a goal the secretary has said he wanted to reach by the end of the year. The politically popular legislation gives billions in aid to farmers and pays for nutrition programs, but the current version expires at the end of this month.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner is expected to become acting agriculture secretary if Johanns resigns.
Kerrey said Wednesday that he is still considering a bid for the Senate, as are Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and Scott Kleeb, who lost a contest for a state congressional district last year.
Republicans have said that if Kerrey entered the race, his connections and popularity would make him tough to beat. Kerrey said Johanns' candidacy would not affect his decision.
''The scales in my case are first personal to my family - when I ran before I didn't have a wife,'' Kerrey said. ''I have a wife and a small child, and this would be very disruptive to our lives.''
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia and Margery Beck in Omaha and AP Special Correspondent David Espo in Washington. Mary Clare Jalonick contributed reporting from Washington.
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