Abramoff Ties Stick to California Rep. Doolittle

The scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff has faded from the headlines, but not from the lives of politicians such as Rep. John Doolittle. The eight-term California Republican was a close friend of Abramoff's, and received significant campaign contributions from the lobbyist.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now one other congressmen the president campaigned for this week is John Doolittle. He represents a huge swath of northeastern California and he was close to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which, not surprisingly, has become an issue in his race. And for the first time in years, Doolittle faces a credible opponent, a retired Air Force officer named Charlie Brown.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: It's rare for a president to visit the rolling hills of El Dorado County, and a few hundred locals wanted to make sure that President Bush and Congressman John Doolittle would see what they thought of them when they drove by. Protestors outnumbered supporters about three to one. But Doolittle backer Carol Yeuhaus(ph) was undeterred.

Ms. CAROL YEUHAUS (Doolittle Supporter): I love him. He's been smeared by the media and the Democratic liberals.

JAFFE: One of whom was standing nearby. Jackie Lamb(ph) said it was no smear, but well-documented fact that Doolittle's wife will personally profit from the presidential fundraiser she arranged for her husband.

Ms. JACKIE LAMB (Doolittle Opponent): She has a business and she takes 15 percent of all the funds that they raise. That goes directly into his family income, and that's not an appropriate thing to be doing.

JAFFE: At the Serrano Country Club there were about 300 enthusiastic Republicans who paid $2,000 each for lunch, a photo with the president and a speech. With John Doolittle standing at his side, Mr. Bush said that America will be safer if the congressman is reelected.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If you want people in Washington who are not going to sit back and wait to be attacked again, you make sure you send people like John Doolittle back to the United States Congress.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: A commercial from the Charlie Brown campaign paints a much darker portrait of the congressman. The spot begins quite far from California, but it tries to bring the Jack Abramoff scandal home.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman: most Americans never heard of a place called the Northern Marianas Islands.

JAFFE: They're a U.S. territory in the Pacific. Jack Abramoff was their lobbyist and he made contributions to John Doolittle when the congressman began backing Abramoff's clients there. The commercial cites a federal study saying that female workers in the Northern Marianas have endured sweatshop conditions and been coerced into the sex trade; some complained of forced abortions.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman: It's time for Doolittle to give back the wages of sin; time for John Doolittle to stop tolerating forced abortions and sex slavery. Time for a change.

JAFFE: Unlike some other members of Congress, Doolittle hasn't returned Abramoff's contributions or donated them to charity, and he makes no apologies.

Representative JOHN DOOLITTLE (Republican, California): It's like this is some phony new morality that we're all supposed to embrace. The money that's ethically given and ethically received, I keep.

JAFFE: In Doolittle's district, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 18 points. But President Bush would not have come all this way to campaign if there weren't some worry that this race is not the cakewalk that Doolittle has been use to. There've been no independent polls, but one done for Doolittle's opponent Charlie Brown shows the challenger just two points behind, and it's clearly excited Brown's supporters.

Unidentified Group: Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!

JAFFE: In the rural town of Loomis, a $20 a plate fundraiser at the Blue Goose fruit bin had enough hotdogs and beans for 300 supporters; more than 400 showed up.

Mr. CHARLIE BROWN (Democratic Congressional Candidate, California): I'm kind of amazed at the turn out here tonight.

JAFFE: By now Brown's supporters know all about him: the Air Force career, the son heading for his fourth tour of duty in Iraq and Brown's criticism of the way the Bush administration handled the war there. As he surveyed the crowd he paid special attention to those wearing the red T-shirts saying Republicans for Charlie Brown.

Mr. BROWN: This is about all of us coming together, and that's why it's so good to know that we've got both Democrats and Republicans here. And unless I've missed something, we haven't had any fistfights or big arguments break out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: In this district, Charlie Brown will have to woo an astonishing number of Republicans in order to win. But with control of Congress on the line, Republicans across the country, all the way up to president of the United States, are taking no chances.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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