Foley Consuming GOP As Elections Draw Near

By Michael Grunwald and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 8, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) was trying to talk about security Friday at bustling Port Everglades, but with planes roaring overhead and containers slamming onto trucks, nobody could hear him.

That's a common problem for Shaw and Republican candidates around the country these days -- trying urgently 30 days before Election Day to frame a winning message but finding their efforts drowned out by the furor over former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

"It's sucking all the air out of the room," Shaw said in an interview after his news conference at the port. "It's a tough time; there's just total saturation right now."

Back in Washington, Republican strategists acknowledge privately that, even under their best-case scenario, Foley's sexually charged messages and allegations that House leaders were too passive in responding to them will remain an all-consuming distraction for GOP campaigns for the next week.

Their strategy -- equal parts hope and calculation -- relies on waiting for the story to die down in local news outlets, even if it continues to dominate national news, while also accusing Democrats of exploiting a personal lapse for political gain.

In both parties, there is rough agreement among operatives that the impact of the Foley scandal is likely to be felt in two different ways.

There are several places where local factors could amplify the scandal's destructive power against Republican candidates. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R), who is facing questions about his own role in responding to reports of Foley's conduct, is suddenly in a tough race against Democrat Jack Davis in an upstate New York district. In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Don Sherwood's already troubled campaign hardly needed anything that might remind voters of his admission earlier this year that he had an affair with a woman who accused him of physical abuse.

Beyond these specific races, however, many strategists in both parties believe the scandal might echo principally as a metaphor for a GOP leadership that over the past year has drawn more attention for ethical lapses and partisan turmoil than legislative achievements.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted after the revelations found 63 percent of voters "dissatisfied" or "angry" with House Republican leaders, and 73 percent disapproving of the job Congress is doing. In a Time magazine poll, 68 percent said the scandal will have no effect on their vote, but only 16 percent said GOP leaders handled it appropriately.

"People aren't going to vote on this issue, but it's given people an easy way to think about everything they're unhappy about," said Democratic media consultant Anita Dunn.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who is running the House Democrats' campaign committee, said he believes the GOP's own conservative activists are among the most repelled by Foley's behavior and by allegations of a lackadaisical response by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Among partisans, he said, "it only energizes our base and makes theirs more despondent." Among independent voters, he added, "nobody votes for this much chaos."

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