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GOP Struggles to Shift Focus From Scandal

Republicans are using precious time to defend party leaders in the Foley case, leaving them hard-pressed to get back to their election issues.

October 09, 2006|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than a week after Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned from the House over his messages to teenage boys who had served as congressional pages, other Republicans are struggling to get off the defensive and back onto the campaign themes they hoped would help preserve their House and Senate majorities after the midterm elections Nov. 7.

In appearances on the Sunday news shows and elsewhere over the weekend, Republicans have tried to defend their leaders' handling of the Foley matter and reassure voters that it will be investigated -- even as they sometimes have blamed Democrats for stoking preelection revelations of Foley's salacious messages.

Even a close ally of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) acknowledged Sunday that time was running short for the GOP to get onto more hospitable political terrain.

"There's a little window of opportunity, but it's closing on us fast," Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) told CBS' "Face the Nation."

"We need to really take advantage of the next 30 days and our resources to persuade the American people that we can govern," he said. "This is going to be the most difficult 30 days in the last 12 years that we've been the majority party."

In a sign of how hot the scandal has gotten, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) -- one of the GOP leaders under fire for his handling of information about Foley -- canceled an appearance booked weeks ago on ABC's "This Week."

Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was to discuss the midterm elections with his Democratic counterpart, but begged off because of "flu-like symptoms," an aide said. Reynolds has said he was told in the spring of overly friendly, but not sexual, e-mails Foley sent to a former page from Louisiana and discussed the matter with Hastert. The speaker has said he does not recall the conversation but does not dispute Reynolds' account.

Even Republicans further removed from the scandal, speaking for the party on the Sunday talk shows, found themselves hard-pressed to focus on several recent economic developments that should be good news for the GOP: a lower unemployment rate, record highs in the stock market and falling gas prices.

That points to a big part of the challenge Republicans face in the final month of campaigning. Even if voters do not blame others in the GOP for Foley's conduct or the potential negligence of their leaders, the scandal is eating up precious time that Republicans had hoped to use to remind voters of their accomplishments.

"To the extent there's not a debate going on about what's the correct course of action in Iraq, on the economy and on what Republicans have accomplished in the 109th Congress, that would distract from the focus we would put on the campaign," said George Rasley, campaign spokesman for Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), who is in a tight reelection race.

Said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio: "This is the period when our vast financial advantage over Democrats was supposed to be coming into play. We should be closing in on them."

A new poll by Newsweek magazine points to another political price Republicans may be paying: 42% of Americans say they trust Democrats to do a better job of handling moral values, whereas 36% say they trust Republicans more. That upends the advantage on moral values the GOP has enjoyed in the past.

On the Foley scandal, the Newsweek poll found that 52% of Americans -- including 29% of Republicans -- believed that Hastert was aware of Foley's conduct and tried to cover it up.

Hastert has said he was not informed of it until recently, when sexually explicit instant messages were reported in the media. His senior aides said they learned last fall about the e-mails to the Louisiana boy and deputized a Republican lawmaker to confront Foley and secure a commitment to cut off contact.

Other sources, including Foley's former top aide, have said that Hastert's staff knew of Foley's conduct more than two years ago.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday on the case of a former House page who said he had sex with Foley in 2000. The former page was 21 and had graduated from college when the encounter occurred, he told The Times.

He said he began receiving explicit messages from Foley after finishing the Capitol Hill page program. In the messages, Foley described assessing the sexual orientation and physical attributes of the male pages, all high school juniors, even as he waited until later to make direct advances. "I don't mess around with pages," Foley wrote.

With lurid revelations continuing to surface, Republicans are ramping up their defense against Democrats' effort to portray House GOP leaders as having been too passive in their response to early clues of Foley's behavior. While Democrats have been hitting that theme hard since Foley's resignation Sept. 29, Republicans have been more scattershot in their response. Some initially took potshots at Hastert.

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