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Foley Case Shakes GOP

Times Staff Writers

The unfolding Capitol Hill sex scandal has upended the political world only five weeks before the midterm elections, escalating GOP worries that the party will lose control of one or both chambers of Congress.

Most immediately, Republicans have been plunged into a wrenching debate about whether heads need to roll in order to persuade voters that they are taking the case of former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) -- who sent explicit messages to male congressional pages -- seriously.

Republicans fear that the case could demoralize conservative supporters and undercut the party’s claim to be a defender of morality.

As events continued to unfold Tuesday, Foley’s lawyer said in a news conference that the lawmaker, who resigned Friday, had been molested by a clergyman when he was a boy. The lawyer also said that Foley was gay but denied that Foley ever had “inappropriate sexual contact with any minor.”

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President Bush -- campaigning for Republicans in California -- said he was “disgusted” and “dismayed” by the Foley case, which already seemed to be having an effect on voters.

A Wall Street Journal survey released Tuesday found that two issues -- the House sex scandal and the war in Iraq -- had made Americans less favorable toward continued GOP control of Congress. It also showed a decline in Bush’s job approval rating to 39% from 42% earlier this month.

Some conservatives are calling for J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to resign as speaker of the House, charging that he failed late last year to adequately investigate a complaint about Foley that at the time might have brought his behavior to light.

But other Republicans rallied behind Hastert on Tuesday, and warned that a leadership upheaval would make matters worse.

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Hastert, who was elevated to his post during the turmoil caused by the sex scandal involving President Clinton, on Tuesday shrugged off calls to quit. “I’m not going to do that,” he said during an appearance on conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

Bush did not answer reporters’ questions about whether Hastert should resign. But he said, “I’m confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement” looking into whether Foley committed any crimes.

The question of how the GOP should respond to the revelations is particularly vexing for religious conservative leaders who are straddling their roles as crucial electoral allies of the party and representatives of a constituency undoubtedly outraged by the revelations.

“You have to keep in mind that the leaders of the Christian conservative groups ... have folks back home who are going to be asking some tough questions,” said Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina who specializes in religion and politics. “And if they don’t take action, they are going to suffer some consequences in their own constituency.”

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For Democrats, the scandal has provided an opening to revive a campaign theme that seemed to have fallen flat earlier this year: their claim that the GOP has brought a culture of corruption to Washington.

Still, political strategists warn that Democrats have to be careful not to overplay their hand -- especially since their party has had its own scandals, such as a bribery investigation of Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana.

“I’m not convinced that Democrats are going to be able to paint [the corruption-in-Washington theme] as a Republican problem,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.

The Foley case and questions about how House GOP leaders handled it compounded problems that were already bedeviling Republicans as they struggled to keep control of the House and Senate. Democrats need to pick up a net 15 seats to gain control of the House, and six seats to win a Senate majority.

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“This is very hurtful for Republicans; there is no other way to put it,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Noting that the GOP’s fortunes had seemed on the upswing as Bush spent much of September focusing on the threat of global terrorism, LaHood added, “This decimates all the things we’ve been doing.”

Across the country in recent days, especially in competitive House races, Democratic candidates have lambasted GOP incumbents for their ties to Foley -- and Republicans have tried to distance themselves from the scandal.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach canceled a Monday fundraiser with Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, one of the GOP leaders who has been criticized for his response to early warnings of Foley’s misconduct. Gerlach also returned donations from Foley.

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Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) did the same. But her Democratic challenger, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, sought to keep the spotlight on the story, calling on Wilson to join those pushing for Hastert’s resignation.

A heated debate over Hastert’s status continued among conservative activists, who were divided over whether it would help or hurt the GOP for him to step down.

Richard A. Viguerie, a pioneer in direct-mail fundraising for conservative causes, was among those calling for Hastert to resign. He charged that the speaker and others were not aggressive enough last year in pursuing a complaint about the e-mails Foley sent to a former page, which the leaders recently characterized as “overly friendly.”

The e-mails were not sexually suggestive, but Viguerie said the leadership’s decision to simply warn Foley to cease communication with the page was “only the most recent example of Republican House leaders doing whatever it takes to hold onto power.”

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The Washington Times, a leading conservative newspaper, gained wide attention in Washington on Tuesday with an editorial urging Hastert to quit as speaker.

Paul M. Weyrich, a conservative strategist who helped to found the Moral Majority, also was sharply critical of Hastert and said he believed the speaker and other GOP leaders should give up their posts because of their handling of the Foley case.

Weyrich said that although he believed Hastert’s explanation that he was unaware of the sexually explicit messages Foley sent to pages that have surfaced in the last week, he still wondered why the speaker had not dug deeper when he dealt with the initial complaint late last year.

“That’s the real question, and that’s what has the movement people very angry,” he said.

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But there was no consensus among conservative leaders that Hastert or other House GOP leaders should step down.

Limbaugh, during his show Tuesday, charged that much of the furor over Hastert was fueled by Democrats who wanted “to suppress conservative turnout” in November.

Other prominent conservative voices, including Focus on the Family and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, rejected the idea that any GOP leader should resign.

The Arlington Group, a coalition of leading social conservative groups, backed away Tuesday from issuing a tough statement urging changes in the leadership.

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Weyrich said that after a conference call among him and other members of the group’s executive committee Monday, he produced a draft statement that called for the resignation “of anyone involved” in handling the Foley case, including Hastert and Boehner.

But after the draft was reviewed by the seven-member executive committee, the final statement did not directly criticize the response of any House leader or call for any to quit.

The statement asserted that House Republicans may have failed to sufficiently investigate Foley because they feared “a backlash from the radical gay rights movement.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com

ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

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Chronology

Sometime in 2003 -- Former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has a sexual conversation with a former House page via a computer instant-messaging program.

May 8, 2003 -- The New Times of Broward-Palm Beach writes that Foley, favored to win the GOP nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham in Florida, is gay.

May 22, 2003 -- Foley tells several reporters in a conference call that speculation that he is gay is “revolting” and “unforgivable,” and he begs for privacy.

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Sept. 5, 2003 -- Foley drops out of the race, citing his father’s cancer.

Aug. 30, 2005 -- A different page contacts the office of Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) with texts of e-mail exchanges with Foley. In one, Foley asks the former page for a photo of himself.

Shortly thereafter, Alexander’s chief of staff contacts the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and asks for guidance to prevent contact between Foley and the ex-page. Hastert’s staff contacts the then-House clerk, Jeff Trandahl, whose office runs the page program. Alexander’s chief of staff declines to show Trandahl the e-mail, saying the boy’s parents wish to keep the matter private. Trandahl is told the message is “overly friendly” but not sexual.

Trandahl and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chair of the board that oversees the page program, tell Foley to have no further contact with the former page. Foley denies any impropriety.

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November 2005 -- Reporters from the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald obtain copies of the e-mail exchange that led Shimkus and Trandahl to caution Foley, but do not write stories because the former page and his family refuse to go public.

Spring 2006 -- After hearing about the 2005 e-mails, prominent Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) expresses concern to Hastert. Hastert says later that he does not recall the conversation, but does not deny it took place.

Sept. 24, 2006 -- The blog www.stopsexpredators.blogspot.com posts four of Foley’s 2005 e-mails.

Sept. 28, 2006 -- ABC News posts a story about the 2005 e-mail messages on its website.

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Sept. 29, 2006 -- ABC News obtains the sexually explicit instant-message exchange from 2003 and asks Foley to comment. Within hours, he resigns.

Oct. 2, 2006 -- In a statement, Foley says he has been admitted into a program for alcoholism and other problems. ABC News releases a new message exchange in which Foley appears to be setting up a rendezvous with a former page.

Oct. 3, 2006 -- Some conservatives and the editorial page of the Washington Times call for Hastert to step down; other conservatives, President Bush and Republican members of Congress rally behind him.

In a statement issued by his lawyer, Foley says that he is gay and that he was molested by a clergyman as a teen, and denies having engaged in inappropriate activities with a minor.

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-- Maura Reynolds

Los Angeles Times


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