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In Key Races, Democrats Look at Rivals' Personal Lives

Republicans and Democrats alike said personal attacks are especially potent in districts that were not as competitive before the public's renewed focus on controversy and alleged coverups. Both sides are reporting high voter interest in the unfolding revelations that Foley repeatedly preyed on young male pages while in Congress and that GOP leaders were aware of concerns about the lawmaker's behavior and allegedly did little to stop it.

So far, there is general agreement that about half a dozen GOP candidates are suffering as a direct result of the controversy. Topping that list are NRCC Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who was told of Foley's questionable behavior and said he reported it to his superiors, and Sherwood, whose former mistress, in a lawsuit, accused him of choking her.

Many Republicans also said it will be virtually impossible for the newly designated Republican candidate in Foley's district to win, because Foley's name remains on the ballot.

The most common Democratic attacks have been the sort used against Republicans such as Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), a member of the House GOP leadership team who has said she knew nothing of the allegations against her friend and colleague Foley. Nonetheless, Democrats are criticizing her for not catching warning signs and for being part of a team that they say averted its gaze from Foley's problems.

A big part of the Democratic strategy in Pryce's district and elsewhere is to suppress turnout among Christian conservatives, a pillar of the GOP coalition.

But there have also been attempts to take advantage of the Foley episode to highlight corruption issues more broadly.

For the Ohio seat to be vacated by indicted Rep. Robert W. Ney (R), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is blanketing the district with mail saying GOP candidate Joy Padgett, a state senator, is too "dirty" to clean up Congress. "You can't clean up Congress if you are covered in mud," the mailings say, drawing links between Padgett and Ney. The DCCC is also running television ads questioning her personal business dealings. The offensive coincides with Ney's expected guilty plea on Friday in the money-for-favors scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Top targets are Republican incumbents who have been bruised by the Abramoff scandal. In California, for instance, Democrats are assailing Rep. John T. Doolittle for supporting "forced abortions and sex slavery" in the Northern Mariana Islands, which were represented by Abramoff. Democrat Charlie Brown said the attack is fair because Doolittle has refused to return contributions from supporters of the government there.

In most cases, these attacks are akin to a "Hail Mary" football pass because the chances of success are so low. An example is in Nevada, where Democrats are trying to oust GOP Rep. Jon Porter from a seat that would be very hard to flip under normal circumstances. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) -- facing his own controversy over a big profit on a land deal -- has twice raised questions about Porter's divorce. The Democratic candidate in that race, Tessa Hafen, is a former Reid aide.

Chris Cillizza of contributed to this report.

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