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Foley scandal
gives Democrats reason for optimism

Foley scandal
gives Democrats reason for optimism

Mark_foley_02_0

Aided by public revulsion over a cybersex scandal involving gay former congressman Mark Foley, Democrats enter the final month of the midterm election campaign well-positioned to challenge control of Congress, while Republicans increasingly express concern about holding on to power.

Aided by public revulsion over an Internet-age sex scandal involving gay former congressman Mark Foley, Democrats enter the final month of the campaign well-positioned to challenge control of Congress, while Republicans increasingly express concern about holding on to power. ''We're going to need everything we have to make sure we're victorious,'' said Republican congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who had long experience as a party strategist before his election to Congress. ''I think we have the ability to do that, but it depends on how well we perform."

Yet with four weeks--and an unknown number of swings in political momentum--remaining until the November 7 elections, Democrats guarded against excessive optimism. ''It's still an uphill battle,'' said U.S. senator Chuck Schumer of New York, speaking at the end of a tumultuous week in which Republicans struggled to overcome the political damage caused by Foley and his sexually explicit computer messages to teenage male pages.

Democratic candidates are in competitive races for seven Republican-held seats in the U.S. Senate and 30 or more in the House, according to public as well as private polls. Equally significant is that barring a change, GOP opportunities for offsetting gains appear minuscule--only three or four House seats currently under Democratic control and one in the Senate.

Members of the leadership in both the House and Senate are among the Republicans in jeopardy--Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Rep. Deborah Pryce in Ohio--as Democrats look for major gains in the Northeast and Midwest.

Four Republican congressmen are in trouble in Pennsylvania. And strikingly, three more are struggling for survival in Republican-red Indiana--at the same time Sen. Richard Lugar is coasting to a sixth term without so much as a Democratic opponent.

Thirty-six states are electing governors this year. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger leads in the polls for reelection in California, but Democrats are in commanding positions to succeed retiring Republicans in New York and Ohio.

The fate of hundreds of ballot initiatives will be decided. Several states will vote on proposals to ban same-sex marriage and raise the minimum wage. Republicans hope the former will boost turnout in crucial congressional races, and Democrats have similar plans for the latter.

In the race for control of Congress, Democrats must gain 15 seats to wrest control of the 435-member House and six to establish a majority in the 100-member Senate.

Strategists in both parties agree the fall campaign already has been marked by two distinct trends. The first, which began after Labor Day, saw gradual movement toward the Republicans as President Bush campaigned vigorously on national security issues.

That momentum began to dissipate two weeks ago with the publication of portions of a government intelligence report that cast doubt on his administration's claims of progress in Iraq. Then came Foley's resignation September 29 after he was confronted with sexually explicit computer messages he had sent to teenage male pages who work in the Capitol.

In the following days, House speaker Dennis Hastert and other GOP leaders struggled to answer questions of when they learned of Foley's actions and what they had done about them. ''It has stopped any momentum that the president had in improving his standing, mostly because it knocked him off the front pages and it knocked security off the front pages,'' said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster.

It did more than that. Some Republicans canceled planned campaign appearances with Hastert, and Democrats challenged their GOP opponents to call for his resignation. Republican congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho said he was no longer confident the GOP would retain power, a shift from a week earlier, when he said he was ''fairly confident'' it would. ''It's a real toss-up," he said.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken while the scandal was dominating the news found that about half of likely voters said the issues of corruption and congressional scandal would be important when they cast their ballots. About two out of three of those voters said they would choose the Democratic candidate.

Officials in both parties said the long term impact of the page scandal was unclear. ''The real question is whether it's a crystallizing event for voters,'' said Carter Eskew, who has advised numerous Democratic lawmakers and candidates. ''Whether they saw this as the last straw and they start to coalesce'' around the belief that Republicans are not willing to be accountable for actions that occur on their watch.

Apart from Santorum, Republican incumbents in trouble include senators Conrad Burns in Montana, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Jim Talent in Missouri.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia recently has joined the list, although Republicans expressed hope that his position had finally stabilized after weeks spent trying to rebut charges of racism and religious insensitivity. Democratic challenger Jim Webb recently reported a sharp jump in fund-raising, and the party is also expected to come to his aid with television commercials in the campaign's final weeks.

Democrats also remain optimistic about their prospects in Tennessee, where Republican Bob Corker's staff recently underwent an upheaval and Democratic congressman Harold Ford has proved a resilient contender.

Republicans cite their prospects in New Jersey, where Tom Kean Jr. is in a close race with Democratic senator Bob Menendez. And Democrats unexpectedly began advertising on television in Maryland for Rep. Ben Cardin, although polls show him leading Republican Michael Steele comfortably in a reliably Democratic state.

In the House, Democrats said they were still looking for late-developing opportunities, and Republicans are hoping to avoid last-minute ambushes. Bush campaigned in recent days for California lawmakers in little evident jeopardy, and the National Republican Congressional Committee commissioned a poll to check the status of an open seat in Idaho, in an area that is among the most Republican in the country.

Foley's departure created an instant opportunity for Democrats to gain a seat previously out of reach in Florida. Democrats also said they are increasingly optimistic about their prospects for seats vacated by Rep. Jim Gibbons in Nevada and Katherine Harris in Florida.

Pryce and Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana are among the most vulnerable of the Republicans in the House, both trailing their Democratic rivals in private polls. Other GOP incumbents in tight races include representatives Jim Gerlach, Michael Fitzpatrick, Curt Weldon, and Don Sherwood, all from Pennsylvania; Thelma Drake of Virginia; Heather Wilson of New Mexico; and Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel of Indiana.

Sodrel had a distinction of sorts--the first Republican to be hit with a commercial that featured a picture of Foley. It said Sodrel had accepted $77,000 in campaign donations from ''the House leadership who knew about but did nothing to stop sexual predator congressman Foley.'' (AP)

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