The downfall of prominent Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff dropped like a bomb into the early stages of the 2006 congressional campaign. But the scandal's political impact will depend on how far the radius of the blast extends.
Abramoff's guilty pleas to several felonies Tuesday and Wednesday will probably compound the electoral headaches for those senators and House members most directly linked to him. Republicans with close ties to the lobbyist -- including Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio and Tom DeLay of Texas and Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana -- have come under fire from Democratic opponents.
But many analysts in both parties think that the Abramoff investigation will significantly change the 2006 political landscape only if it helps Democrats portray the GOP congressional majority as enmeshed in a "culture of corruption."
Such a portrait could magnify the controversy's effect by threatening even legislators tangentially involved with Abramoff -- much the way the Republican focus on congressional scandals in the early 1990s weakened a broad swath of Democratic incumbents.
But framing that picture won't be easy for Democrats, partly because members of the party also received contributions from Abramoff clients and partly because polls show most Americans see both parties as equally prone to corruption.
"It could change, but at this point Democrat dreams of corruption being a central theme are not there in public opinion," said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
The GOP does face the risk that if the Abramoff case results in indictments of Republican lawmakers, voters could see the scandal in more partisan terms.
"You are likely to have a very public, very lengthy discussion of exactly how corruption has worked among Republican lobbyists and Republican members of Congress," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "I think that portrait will have an impact much broader than on just the people who got a buck or two, or 25,000, from Abramoff."
Democratic congressional leaders have signaled for months that a central theme of the party's 2006 campaign will be that Republicans have focused more on the concerns of lobbyists and special interests than of ordinary families.
In Montana, Burns faced this line of attack Wednesday from the two Democrats contending for the nomination to oppose him in November.
"It is time to put an end to ... the pay-to-play politics that are going on in Washington," said state Sen. Jon Tester. "This kind of politics ... doesn't really represent the rank-and-file folks that are out there every day trying to make ends meet."
State Auditor John Morrison said he expected ethics to be a major focus of the Senate race. "If a member of our congressional delegation has been engaging in unlawful conduct or in any way voting or performing legislative services on the basis of who gives them money, that is a matter of great concern to the voters of Montana," he said.
Burns, who helped obtain funding for a new school for a Michigan Indian tribe that Abramoff represented, has pledged to return contributions linked to the lobbyist -- a tack taken by a number of lawmakers.
DeLay's and Ney's ties to Abramoff will be criticized in an ad campaign paid for by the Campaign for America's Future. The liberal group announced Wednesday that the ads were scheduled to air in both men's districts next week.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of "Feeding Frenzy," a book on the political implications of scandal, said those lawmakers whose names had figured most prominently in the Abramoff case almost certainly would be hurt by it.
Sabato said that, on average, legislators implicated in major scandals since the 1960s had seen their share of the vote drop 7 to 11 percentage points from their previous election. That could prove bad news for Burns, who won reelection in 2000 with 51% of the vote, and DeLay, who in 2004 captured 55%.
Ney received 66% of his district's vote in 2004, but he appears to face the most immediate risk of indictment -- and resulting political damage -- because of his links to Abramoff.
Still, Sabato predicted that without several indictments of Republicans, it would be "very difficult" for Democrats to spread an ethical net over GOP candidates across the country.
Indeed, several recent national surveys show that when it comes to corruption, the public sees the partisan contention much like an argument between the pot and the kettle.
In a poll for NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 79% of Americans termed corruption in Washington "equally a problem among both parties." In a survey for National Public Radio, about 60% said corruption in Washington today was no greater than usual.
Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who conducted the NPR survey with Bolger, the GOP pollster, said the results showed that Democrats were not positioned to benefit from disillusionment over Washington ethics. "Democrats will not get heard unless they are reformers," he said.
Hoping to claim that mantle, congressional Democrats are expected to champion lobbying reform this year. But Republicans will probably seek to blur that difference by advancing their own reform proposals.
Seeking to diminish the contrast on another front, Republicans are emphasizing the support Abramoff clients provided to Democrats.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the $204,253 in personal contributions by Abramoff since the 2000 election all went to Republicans. But Indian tribes he lobbied for contributed about $1.5 million to Democratic candidates and party committees over that period (as well as about $2.65 million to Republicans).
Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that too many Democrats had received funding from Abramoff-related interests for the party "to distance themselves from this guy."
Democrats counter that it will be difficult for the GOP to present Abramoff as an "equal money dispenser" between the parties, as President Bush put it in an interview last month.
Mellman, the Democratic pollster, argued that as the majority party, Republicans had the most to lose if the controversy deepened the pox-on-both-houses attitude toward Congress evident in many polls.
"Even if there are some Democrats caught up in it, the reality is if people are negative about the whole institution, [Republicans] get hurt disproportionately because there are more of them," he said.
Warren Tompkins, a veteran GOP strategist based in South Carolina, agreed that his party should not discount the threat posed by the Abramoff scandal.
"The Republicans in Congress have got ... to deal with all this greed and corruption and sleaze they've got going," he said. "I know it's a problem when I go down to my hunt club and they're mad."