During National Character Counts Week, Bush Stumps for Philanderer

President Bush's approval rating is just 35 percent, but that would be a step up for some. Such as Rep. Don Sherwood.
President Bush's approval rating is just 35 percent, but that would be a step up for some. Such as Rep. Don Sherwood. (By S. John Wilkin -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 20, 2006

LA PLUME, Pa., Oct. 19

So it has come to this: Nineteen days before the midterm elections, President Bush flew here to champion the reelection of a congressman who last year settled a $5.5 million lawsuit alleging that he beat his mistress during a five-year affair.

"I'm pleased to be here with Don Sherwood," a smiling president told the congressman's loyal but dispirited supporters at a luncheon fundraiser Thursday. "He has got a record of accomplishment."

Quite a record. While representing the good people of the 10th District, the married congressman shacked up in Washington with a Peruvian immigrant more than three decades his junior. During one assignation in 2004, the woman, who says Sherwood was striking her and trying to strangle her, locked herself in a bathroom and called 911; Sherwood told police he was giving her a back rub.

At a time when Republicans are struggling to motivate religious conservatives to go to the polls next month, it is not clear what benefit the White House found in sending Bush to stump for Sherwood -- smack dab in the middle of what Bush, in an official proclamation, dubbed "National Character Counts Week."

The president encouraged public officials "to observe this week with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs" -- but public officials responded with some unusual ceremonies and activities: The House ethics committee is holding hearings on the page sex scandal; the FBI raided buildings as part of a probe involving Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.); and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the eighth person convicted in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, is refusing to vacate his seat in Congress.

On the other hand, while other Republicans proclaim their independence from Bush, Sherwood is one of the few still eager to bask in the president's faint glow. (Another was Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who, after a summer of racial and religious gaffes, was happy to welcome Bush in Richmond on Thursday evening.) Bush may be at a lowly 35 percent in the polls here, but Sherwood should be so lucky: Only 1 in 5 residents definitely intends to vote for him next month. By Sherwood standards, Bush is still a rock star.

"My family and I are humbled by having our friends support us, especially when one is the leader of this great country," Sherwood said in introducing Bush.

His wife and adult daughter stood on stage, human shields against scandal. Their discomfort became apparent when Bush, trying to defuse the controversy, praised the letter Carol Sherwood wrote to her husband's constituents this week about the "needlessly cruel" decision by his Democratic opponent to run an ad about the mistress's allegations. "I was deeply moved by her words," he said, while some in the dead-silent audience noticed an agonized look on daughter Maria Sherwood's face.

Bush was careful to avoid the usual lines about family and conservative values; he also skipped the usual first-name-only reference that would indicate that "Don" is a buddy. Onstage, he gave Sherwood the obligatory handshake and photograph but quickly moved to stand with the female Sherwoods.

The president otherwise kept his talk in the comfortable realm of terrorists and taxes. "As this campaign gets closer to the stretch, you will hear a lot of rhetoric and a lot of partisan charges coming from the other side," Bush warned. "Their goal is to distract you."

The nature of the accuser's allegations -- she said Sherwood gave her "facial lacerations, bruises about the head, neck and other portions of her body, head injury, injuries to her teeth, mouth and gums, back and neck strain, injuries to her scalp" -- makes it more than a distraction. Sherwood continues to deny abuse after reaching the secret settlement.

Still, the loyal listeners wanted to believe Bush -- and not the polls that show Sherwood as a goner, down by 15 points. "It all depends on how forgiving the constituents are," said Harry Strausser III, whose name tag bore the red star of the big donors at the $350-a-head lunch. As for Bush's elliptical reference to the scandal, "given the fact that the unfortunate situation occurred, you can't ignore it."

His father, Harry Jr., added, wistfully: "He's done a lot while in Congress. It's an unfortunate situation, the Washington problem with the woman."

There weren't quite enough attendees to fill the 25 tables. Campaign volunteers, working to minimize reporters' contact with the donors, guarded the media in a roped-off pen in the rear of the room, even escorting them to and from the restroom. When the event ended, the Secret Service joined volunteers in attempting, unsuccessfully, to restrain reporters behind ropes until the attendees left.

Such precautions -- Thursday's whole event, in fact -- would have been unnecessary if Sherwood, a car dealer and conservative Republican, had avoided that "Washington problem with the woman," as Strausser tactfully put it. But the rural, reliably GOP voters began to sour on Sherwood with news of the lawsuit; the mood worsened when the Mark Foley page scandal renewed questions of sexual misconduct among lawmakers.

"It's the perfect storm of events," exulted Chris Carney, Sherwood's Democratic opponent. The Penn State professor and naval reservist is enjoying Bush's "last-ditch" effort to rescue the congressman. Working a lunchtime crowd at a diner not far from the Sherwood event, the Democrat didn't have to work hard to win support, even from Republicans.

"I'm leaning towards him," Diane Kosar said after Carney visited her booth. Opposed to abortion and eager for a crackdown on illegal immigrants, she has voted for Sherwood in the past.

But this time, even the president can't save him. "Sherwood's been okay," Kosar said, "but as far as what he did with the young girl, that was a bad thing."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company