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Foley Case Shakes GOP

With elections nearing, conservatives are split over whether Hastert and other leaders who didn't take action last year should step down.

October 04, 2006|Janet Hook and Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The unfolding Capitol Hill sex scandal has upended the political world only five weeks before the midterm elections, escalating GOP worries that the party will lose control of one or both chambers of Congress.

Most immediately, Republicans have been plunged into a wrenching debate about whether heads need to roll in order to persuade voters that they are taking the case of former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) -- who sent explicit messages to male congressional pages -- seriously.

Republicans fear that the case could demoralize conservative supporters and undercut the party's claim to be a defender of morality.

As events continued to unfold Tuesday, Foley's lawyer said in a news conference that the lawmaker, who resigned Friday, had been molested by a clergyman when he was a boy. The lawyer also said that Foley was gay but denied that Foley ever had "inappropriate sexual contact with any minor."

President Bush -- campaigning for Republicans in California -- said he was "disgusted" and "dismayed" by the Foley case, which already seemed to be having an effect on voters.

A Wall Street Journal survey released Tuesday found that two issues -- the House sex scandal and the war in Iraq -- had made Americans less favorable toward continued GOP control of Congress. It also showed a decline in Bush's job approval rating to 39% from 42% earlier this month.

Some conservatives are calling for J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to resign as speaker of the House, charging that he failed late last year to adequately investigate a complaint about Foley that at the time might have brought his behavior to light.

But other Republicans rallied behind Hastert on Tuesday, and warned that a leadership upheaval would make matters worse.

Hastert, who was elevated to his post during the turmoil caused by the sex scandal involving President Clinton, on Tuesday shrugged off calls to quit. "I'm not going to do that," he said during an appearance on conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's radio show.

Bush did not answer reporters' questions about whether Hastert should resign. But he said, "I'm confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement" looking into whether Foley committed any crimes.

The question of how the GOP should respond to the revelations is particularly vexing for religious conservative leaders who are straddling their roles as crucial electoral allies of the party and representatives of a constituency undoubtedly outraged by the revelations.

"You have to keep in mind that the leaders of the Christian conservative groups ... have folks back home who are going to be asking some tough questions," said Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina who specializes in religion and politics. "And if they don't take action, they are going to suffer some consequences in their own constituency."

For Democrats, the scandal has provided an opening to revive a campaign theme that seemed to have fallen flat earlier this year: their claim that the GOP has brought a culture of corruption to Washington.

Still, political strategists warn that Democrats have to be careful not to overplay their hand -- especially since their party has had its own scandals, such as a bribery investigation of Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana.

"I'm not convinced that Democrats are going to be able to paint [the corruption-in-Washington theme] as a Republican problem," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.

The Foley case and questions about how House GOP leaders handled it compounded problems that were already bedeviling Republicans as they struggled to keep control of the House and Senate. Democrats need to pick up a net 15 seats to gain control of the House, and six seats to win a Senate majority.

"This is very hurtful for Republicans; there is no other way to put it," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Noting that the GOP's fortunes had seemed on the upswing as Bush spent much of September focusing on the threat of global terrorism, LaHood added, "This decimates all the things we've been doing."

Across the country in recent days, especially in competitive House races, Democratic candidates have lambasted GOP incumbents for their ties to Foley -- and Republicans have tried to distance themselves from the scandal.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach canceled a Monday fundraiser with Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, one of the GOP leaders who has been criticized for his response to early warnings of Foley's misconduct. Gerlach also returned donations from Foley.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) did the same. But her Democratic challenger, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, sought to keep the spotlight on the story, calling on Wilson to join those pushing for Hastert's resignation.

A heated debate over Hastert's status continued among conservative activists, who were divided over whether it would help or hurt the GOP for him to step down.

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