GOP fears Foley case may hurt Nov. vote

Many demoralized conservatives might abstain, analysts say

Maryland Votes 2006

October 04, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Religious conservatives, whose grass-roots operations have helped Republicans maintain a lock on the presidency and Congress, believe that the House sex-chat scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley and underage Capitol pages could reduce their turnout at the polls, potentially costing the party control of Congress.

President Bush moved to contain the fallout yesterday even as more lurid exchanges emerged, and as Foley's lawyer announced that his client was gay and had been molested as a teenager.

Bush took a break from campaigning yesterday to denounce the Florida Republican, who resigned Friday, and to throw his support behind House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois in the face of calls for his ouster.

In his first public comments on the matter, Bush said he was "dismayed and shocked to learn about Congressman Foley's unacceptable behavior." The president had kind words for Hastert, who said yesterday that he would not resign despite calls for him to step down, including an editorial in the conservative Washington Times.

"I know Denny wants all the facts to come out," the president said.

Some conservative activists say they worry, however, that the Foley matter could be the blow that pushes so-called "values voters" to yield to their nagging impulse to stay home this Election Day. That little voice is nothing new, the strategists say. Conservatives have been demoralized for months by a president and congressional leaders that they view as insufficiently committed to so-called "pro-family" issues such as banning gay marriage and restricting abortion, but the most recent scandal may have increased its volume and urgency.

"I'm certainly hoping that a few bad apples don't spoil the whole bunch, but it certainly could," said Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council. "If people are disgusted with Congress, especially Christian conservatives or social conservative voters, they realize that on their issues the Democrats are going to be even worse, but if these [Republicans] aren't showing the backbone on defending key values, people will just stay home."

With voters of many stripes displeased with Bush, dismayed about the Iraq war and generally upset with their public officials, low turnout among conservatives - the president's most reliable base of support - could be the game-changer that pundits have been watching for, analysts said

"Every conservative leader I know wants the Congress to stay Republican, but we're not dictators. We can't order the people to the polls, and people have tuned this president out, and now this Congress, too," said Richard A. Viguerie, a pioneer of conservative direct mail and frequent spokesman for conservative disenchantment with Bush.

ABC News reported new details of Foley's exchanges with a teenage boy yesterday, including an episode of apparent "Internet sex" during evening House votes and messages which suggested that the congressman had met the page in person and had invited him to his home to drink.

During an evening news conference in Foley's West Palm Beach district, his lawyer David Roth said "a clergyman" had molested Foley when he was between the ages of 13 and 15.

"He kept his shame to himself for almost 40 years," Roth said, refusing to provide details of the "trauma" Foley suffered. Roth said his client "continues to offer no excuse whatsoever" for his conduct. He also confirmed long-standing rumors that the former congressman is gay.

Roth said Foley, who checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center over the weekend, is a "closet drinker" and that the former congressman never had "any inappropriate sexual contact with a minor."

Some Republican strategists said yesterday that unless evidence surfaces that party leaders knew of the lurid Internet exchanges and covered them up, the episode could fade in time for the November balloting.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who assessed the electorate's mood as "lousy" and Republican chances of holding onto Congress as "borderline" five weeks before Election Day, said that barring further revelations, voters' focus will soon return "to other issues of greater moment and greater importance to people's lives."

But some strategists said disillusioned voters would still punish Republicans.

"The damage is done whether Hastert stays or not," Viguerie added, calling the Foley case "the last nail in the coffin" for Republicans. "It's made it very difficult for the values voter leadership to go out there and turn out their people at the polls. What argument do they make about why Republicans are different from the Democrats?"

Grass-roots conservative activists in key battleground states said they were bracing for low turnout this year in the wake of the Foley scandal, which they called a confirmation of worries that their voters have long harbored that Republican leaders had abandoned their principles in the interest of staying in power, just as Democrats did before their defeat in 1994.

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