(EDITORS: SPELLING of Mitch Ceasar is CQ.)
WASHINGTON—The week-old congressional page sex scandal could have a decisive effect on several key political campaigns across the country and prove crucial to Democratic hopes of gaining control of the House of Representatives in November.
Polls indicate that the scandal, triggered by the publication of sexually explicit messages that former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley sent to ex-pages, hasn't created a voter backlash against Republicans nationally.
But in four House districts currently held by Republicans the issue could prove decisive, political analysts said, because of the candidates' connections to Foley or to child protection issues:
_Foley's open seat in central and coastal Florida, where his name will remain on the ballot even though he resigned last Friday.
_The upstate New York district of Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who's chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The committee received $100,000 from Foley last summer, and Reynolds is one of the congressional leaders who knew last year of concerns surrounding Foley's e-mails.
_Minnesota's 6th District, where child safety already was the signature issue for the race's Democrat, whose 11-year-old son was abducted in 1989.
_The New Mexico seat of Rep. Heather Wilson, who was a member of the House committee that oversees the page program during the period that Foley sent the sexually explicit instant messages that now are under scrutiny. Her Democratic opponent has accused her of participating in a cover-up.
In more than a dozen other races around the nation, Democrats are trying to put Republicans on the defensive over the issue, although the links are weaker. They include competitive Republican-held seats in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
In Indiana, Democratic challenger Baron Hill launched a television ad Friday running photos of Republican Rep. Mike Sodrel and Foley alongside one another. The ad seeks to tie Sodrel, a first-term congressman, to Foley via $77,000 in campaign money that Sodrel accepted from Republican leaders "who knew about but did nothing to stop" Foley.
Democratic and Republican strategists say the scandal also could help Democrats by discouraging social conservatives, who usually vote Republican, from going to the polls. That could be especially damaging in heartland states such as Indiana and Kentucky.
The scandal also might encourage independent voters to cast ballots for Democrats in an effort to change the status quo, both camps' strategists said.
"You're not going to win running on Mark Foley," Republican strategist Brian Nienaber said of Democratic challengers criticizing Republicans in most races. "But you could win on Mark Foley being a piece of `You've been in power for too long.'"
In Minnesota, the Republican candidate, Michele Bachmann, a social conservative, had the apparent edge in the race to replace Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy, who's running for the Senate. But four days after the scandal broke, the Democrat, Patty Wetterling, rushed out a television ad calling for a criminal investigation of Foley and the expulsion of any member of Congress who knew he might be preying on underage pages but didn't speak up.
Democrats now think that Wetterling, who's already well known on children's issues because of her son's abduction, has the momentum, and they tapped her to deliver this week's response to President Bush's weekly radio address.
Political scientist Steven Smith said the Foley scandal had given Wetterling "about as fat a pitch down the middle of the plate as you can get in politics."
In Foley's Florida district, many Republican strategists think they have little hope of hanging on to the seat. The Republicans have designated a candidate, Joe Negron, to run in Foley's place, but there's little time for him to campaign.
And people who wish to support Negron must vote for Foley, whose name will remain on the ballot. Republicans fear that few people will be willing to do that.
In New York, Reynolds learned months ago that the parents of one former page were concerned about an overly friendly e-mail that Foley had sent their son in 2005. Reynolds discussed the matter with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., but they didn't inform Democrats or agitate for a thorough investigation.
Reynolds also had other ties to Foley. His chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, previously had been Foley's chief of staff. Fordham resigned from Reynolds' staff this week after he was accused of trying to shield Foley when the scandal broke. But he added to the controversy by charging that he'd tried to warn Hastert's staff of concerns years ago.
A poll Thursday by the Buffalo, N.Y., television station WGRZ showed Reynolds in a statistical tie with his Democratic opponent, and analysts say the Foley case is affecting his campaign.
"The main thing that we're seeing here is it's distracting him from paying attention to the district issues he wanted to focus on," said Gerald Gamm, the chairman of the University of Rochester's political science department. "Instead, all the attention this week is on his role in a scandal in Washington, D.C. He has to account for what he did and when he did it."
In New Mexico, Wilson's re-election race already was competitive. But since the scandal broke, her Democratic challenger, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, has issued almost daily news releases accusing Wilson of complicity in a "cover-up."
Wilson was a member of the House Page Board from 2001 to 2004. That covers a period when Foley was apparently trading sexually explicit instant messages with at least one former page, though no evidence has come to light that Wilson knew of the e-mails.
The issue is a subject of daily attention in New Mexico, where Madrid is touting her record of combating on-line sexual predators. Polls show that what had been a dead heat before the Foley scandal has tipped in Madrid's favor.
"While Patricia Madrid was in New Mexico keeping our children safe from on-line sexual predators, it appears that Heather Wilson was in Washington, looking the other way as one of her colleagues made inappropriate advances to the children she was charged with protecting," reads one recent Madrid campaign news release.
Wilson defended herself Tuesday in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, a New Mexico newspaper. "How do people think I should have known?" she said. "Think about any group you're involved with that has 500 people in it. Do you know what they're writing in their e-mails?"
An Albuquerque Journal poll conducted before the Foley scandal broke showed a tie. A Zogby poll conducted for the Reuters news service after Foley resigned found Madrid leading Wilson 50.4 percent to 40.3 percent. The poll of 500 New Mexicans from Wilson's congressional district had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Democrats, who need to gain 15 seats to take control of the House, also hope that the Foley scandal will have an impact on close races in which other issues seem to be driving voters.
In the Florida district of Republican Rep. Clay Shaw, Democrats are hoping that anger at Foley, whose district borders Shaw's, will spill over. "This is all people are talking about; how outrageous it is," Broward County Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar said. "The angriest people of the guys sitting there are the middle-aged, Caucasian guys, and they are the ones that are the most conservative."
A Pew Research Center poll this week said the war in Iraq remained the central issue in voters' minds heading into the Nov. 7 elections. "The Foley story has not significantly affected the midterm race," director Andrew Kohut said.
But Pew polls also show that white evangelical Protestants' preference for Republicans over Democrats in congressional races has slipped, from 64 percent to 27 percent in 2002 to 57 percent to 31 percent now. That may be enough of a drop to affect close races, analysts said.
In one Kentucky race, Democratic challenger Ken Lucas' campaign manager, Jim Creevy, said voters had barraged the campaign to express outrage over the Foley scandal. The incumbent, Rep. Geoff Davis, said it "has not been a dominant subject" among his supporters.
Michael Baranowski, associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, said the Foley scandal is likely to have only a "very indirect and minor" role in the conservative district that stretches along the Ohio River to the West Virginia border.
Nevertheless, he cautioned, "Very minor things have a way of adding up in a race like this."
(Talev reported from Washington and Black from Minnesota. William Douglas and Ron Hutcheson in Washington, John Stamper in Kentucky and Amy Sherman and Jennifer Mooney Piedra in Florida contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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