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Democrats hit jackpot as GOP reels from scandals

Democrats hit jackpot as GOP reels from scandals

When it comes to scandal, Democrats could be forgiven for thinking they hit the political jackpot this summer. At Republicans' expense.

First came the disclosure that Louisiana U.S. senator David Vitter's telephone number was listed in the records of an escort service.

Then Sen. Ted Stevens's home in Alaska was raided by federal agents as part of a corruption investigation.

Now Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho is recanting a guilty plea that grew out of a police undercover operation in an airport men's room, adding ''I am not gay'' for emphasis.

''This is a serious matter,'' said the Senate Republican leadership, an understatement for the ages.

No doubt, none of this has been good for what some Republicans like to call ''the brand.''

Craig ''represents the Republican Party,'' Rep. Pete Hoekstra said on Wednesday, a frank acknowledgment that the party may suffer, regardless of the Idaho senator's political fate.

''I think it's important for Republicans to step out right now and say, 'No, this behavior is not going to be tolerated,' '' Hoekstra added.

Depending on how far that attitude extends, it would mark a change from the recent past, when House Republicans were slow to respond to the scandal spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Democrats capitalized on voter dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq last fall, but they also campaigned on a platform of ending what they called a ''culture of corruption.'' It was a task made immeasurably easier by the imprisonment of former representative Bob Ney, the indictment of former majority leader Tom DeLay, and the resignation of former congressman Mark Foley, the Floridian who acknowledged writing salacious e-mails to underage male House pages.

Not that Democrats are without scandal. But they moved quickly in the House to punish Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana last year, stripping him of his committee assignment even before he was indicted in a corruption investigation.

It was a step designed to make Republicans look more tolerant of alleged wrongdoing--the very thing Hoekstra seemed to have in mind in Craig's case.

DeLay, who resigned amid allegations of misuse of campaign donations, took up the Republican theme Thursday, saying his party moves quickly against lawmakers when there is evidence of guilt.

''Republicans address them, Democrats reelect them,'' DeLay told NBC's Today show, without giving an opinion on whether Craig should resign.

Ironically, not even Democrats claim they will win a seat in reliably Republican Idaho next year, and Alaska has sent only Republicans to Congress for more than a quarter century.

But even before news of Craig's guilty plea surfaced, Senate Democrats possessed numerous other possibilities to pad their thin majority.

''There are several incumbent Republicans who are soft, partially because of the president's performance and their loyalty to the president,'' says J.B. Poersch, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

He cited Colorado, where Sen. Wayne Allard is retiring, as well as seats held by GOP incumbents John Sununu in New Hampshire; Susan Collins in Maine; Gordon Smith in Oregon; and Norm Coleman in Minnesota.

Privately, several GOP strategists say the Colorado seat will be extremely difficult to hold, and that among the incumbents, Sununu appears headed for the toughest race.

Additionally, Republican senators John Warner in Virginia--where Democrats have elected governors in successive elections--and Chuck Hagel in Nebraska are flirting with retirements. Democrats have already sought to line up challengers in case the seats become open--former governor Mark Warner in Virginia and former senator Bob Kerrey in Nebraska.

Compounding Republican woes, filings with the Federal Election Commission show their party's senatorial committee had $6.5 million cash on hand at the end of July, while the Democrats had $20.5 million, with a debt of $4 million.

Even the election map is tilted away from the Republicans, who must defend 22 of 34 seats on the ballot next year.

But Republicans hope the political environment will change when the party has a presidential nominee eager to move beyond the era of George W. Bush.

''We have strong senators in every single one of our races at this point,'' said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the GOP campaign committee. ''Sure, maybe there are some retirements ahead of us, but we have a strong field, and we're very positive about our position right now.''

Still, Republicans failed to recruit Rep. Dennis Rehberg to run against Sen. Max Baucus in Montana. Gov. Mike Rounds in South Dakota shows no signs of wanting to challenge Sen. Tim Johnson, who is recovering from a brain hemorrhage but seems to be positioning himself to seek a new term next year.

Fisher listed Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana as the top target for Republicans, who are expected to field a challenger after statewide elections this November. Fisher declined to discuss names. But several GOP officials say they expect state treasurer John Kennedy, who switched parties on Monday, to enter the race as soon as he wins a new term in his current post.

Fisher expressed optimism that Republicans can regain a majority next year, a prediction more optimistic than the one uttered several weeks ago by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP Senate leader.

''I think the odds are kind of tough,'' he said this spring.

That was before Vitter was forced to apologize, Stevens denied any wrongdoing, and Craig declared he was innocent despite pleading guilty. (David Espo, AP)

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