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Not All Ethics Clouds Darken Election Day

Some incumbents facing scrutiny are favored to return to Congress anyway, undercutting Democrats' `culture of corruption' attack.

September 02, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. John T. Doolittle has called Jack Abramoff a friend.

The Republican from Roseville, Calif., used Abramoff's skybox at a Washington sports arena for fundraising and has refused to return political donations from the disgraced lobbyist.

Now the congressman is the target of attack ads.

One, a takeoff on the old "tastes great, less filling" beer ads, features an argument over whether Doolittle is "corrupt or ineffective."

Even so, Doolittle is favored to win reelection.

Ethics scandals cast a shadow over the last session of Congress, and the "culture of corruption" under the Republican majority was expected to be a major Democratic theme in the midterm campaign.

But it hasn't turned out that way.

Political observers say voters are focused instead on the Iraq war, immigration and gasoline prices.

And the fact that some incumbents under the ethical cloud are Democrats has undercut the party's ability to use the issue as a major weapon against Republicans.

In fact, a number of lawmakers whose conduct has come under scrutiny are expected to be reelected.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who is under investigation over his ties to lobbyists, faces such a little-known, underfunded opponent that the Appropriations Committee chairman hasn't even hired a campaign manager or opened a campaign office.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), who is under attack for his conduct as well as his record on the environment, is favored to win because his district leans Republican and because of his ability to raise campaign funds as Resources Committee chairman.

And Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who stepped down as the top Democrat on the Ethics Committee after allegations that he steered millions of dollars to nonprofits he helped control, also is outpolling his challenger.

That's not to say some lawmakers who have come under scrutiny aren't nervous.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) -- who also had ties to Abramoff, the once-powerful GOP influence peddler who pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe lawmakers -- is in a tight race.

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), the subject of a bribery investigation who was found with $90,000 in cash in his freezer, has drawn a dozen challengers, a number of them prominent Democrats.

And Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) faces a tough challenge after disclosures that the married congressman settled a lawsuit brought by a former mistress.

Polls have shown that most Americans see the two parties as equally prone to corruption.

Even so, the issue had seemed to be one the Democrats could use to their advantage.

But two GOP poster boys for the Democrats' "culture of corruption" campaign -- former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio -- decided not to seek reelection.

"Who are the faces of the Abramoff scandal? Bob Ney. Tom DeLay. Ralph Reed. Conrad Burns. Who's left?" said Matt McKenna, spokesman for Burns' Democratic opponent, Jon Tester.

Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader, who has ties to Abramoff, lost Georgia's GOP primary race for lieutenant governor in July.

Democrats were dealt another blow when they tried to make ethics a major theme in the race to replace former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the imprisoned Republican from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., who plead guilty to corruption charges last year. Republican Brian Bilbray won that seat, despite Democrats' highlighting of his work as a lobbyist.

Julian Zelizer, a Boston University history professor, said the corruption issue "already did its damage."

"There is not as much to gain by investing the entire campaign on that theme."

So though they still are emphasizing ethics, especially in the districts of Republicans whose conduct has come under scrutiny, Democrats are doing so as part of a broader message. They are using the continuing instability in Iraq, high gasoline prices and the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina to call the GOP's leadership into question.

Indeed, more Democratic-sponsored TV ads picture Republicans with an unpopular President Bush than with Abramoff. A number of commercials assail Republicans as tools of "special interests," citing their support from the oil industry at time of high gas prices.

With the midterm elections two months away, the political calculus could change, especially if the ongoing investigation of influence-peddling in Washington leads to indictments.

But for now, Doolittle and Pombo are ahead in their races -- "but only because gerrymandering has made their districts so heavily Republican," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Doolittle's Democratic challenger, Charlie Brown, has aired a radio ad featuring Vietnam veteran and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland talking about Brown's record as an Air Force officer. "We will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do," Cleland says. "That's U.S. Air Force Academy honor code."

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