MELISSA BLOCK, host:
As Brian Naylor mentioned, the Foley scandal comes just five weeks before crucial midterm elections. The Republican Party was already dealing with an unpopular war and uneasiness about the economy.
NPR's Mara Liasson is here to talk about how this new scandal fits into the picture. Mara, the Democrats need 6 seats to take control of the Senate, 15 to take control of the House. They were already in striking distance and now there seems to be a great deal more Republican nervousness about what would happen in November.
MARA LIASSON: That's true. Democrats are more hopeful after this scandal and Republicans are more worried, I guess just in terms of pure math, since the Republicans have now pretty much put the Foley seat off the table and kind of conceded it. Now the Democrats only need 14.
But Democrats say that this is a potentially dam-breaking moment. They say it's like the time in 1994 when Democrats couldn't pass the crime bill and the wheels started coming off of the Democratic majority. And Democratic strategists that I've talked to today say it enriches the sense that Congress is a mess, it's time for a change and we should sweep the place clean. It just deepens people's impression of a dysfunctional Congressional leadership.
On the other hand, Republicans I talked to say while they're just beginning to poll on this in the districts, they're not seeing huge changes from the already difficult position some of their members were in. It's just yet another cross to bear for Republicans, like the war, like Katrina, although they did say that Speaker Hastert probably won't be invited to as many fundraisers as he was before this.
BLOCK: Democrats have been talking for a while now about a Republican culture of corruption in Washington. They've been focusing on the lobbying scandal and Jack Abramoff. How will this play out differently, do you think, this new scandal?
LIASSON: Well, I guess it's easy to say sex is a lot easier to understand than money, and as you heard Ray LaHood say in Brian's piece, this is what people wanted to talk about.
I think this is different than the Abramoff scandal because Democrats had high hopes for that scandal to become some kind of a big indictment of Republicans in general, the culture of corruption. In the end, though, it only seemed to be hurting those who were affected, like Bob Ney or Tom DeLay or Conrad Burns.
This time Democrats are very hopeful that the Foley scandal will be different. Not only is his race affected and the race of Tom Reynolds in upstate New York - Reynolds is the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and he's got a millionaire businessman opponent hammering away at his role in this scandal.
But Democrats say that this story is actionable and it can be effective in all sorts of districts because every Republican is going to be asked the question do you think Speaker Hastert should resign? Do you think the Republican leadership did enough to protect the pages as opposed to the predator? And they're going to keep the pressure on.
BLOCK: As we heard, a very strong editorial in The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper, today calling for Dennis Hastert to step down. He hasn't really been a lightning rod for criticism up until now. What's going on?
LIASSON: No. I think Republicans are clearly frustrated with the mishandling of this and the potential damage it does to their election hopes. You heard the majority leader, John Boehner, seeming like he was dumping the scandal in Hastert's lap. There have been Republican Web sites very, very angry about this and the Washington Times as you mentioned.
But the president did rally to him. Speaker Hastert did a very, very friendly interview today with Rush Limbaugh, and so far no one has crossed the line. No Republican member has called for the speaker's resignation and I guess that would be a tipping point, if some vulnerable Republican under pressure from the Democrats did call for his resignation.
BLOCK: Let's step back just a bit. There had been some reason for optimism for Republicans lately. President Bush's approval ratings have been improving. Republicans seem to have found their footing, or felt they may have, by focusing on the war on terrorism. And then some damaging things. The Bob Woodward book came out, now this Congressional page scandal with Mark Foley.
LIASSON: Yeah, the Republican pollster, Tony Fabrizio, called this the perfect storm. And you know, what's happened in the past is the president has been able to use the bully pulpit to control the debate, and he was successful at doing that and focusing on the war on terror, where the Democrats were left just trying to take advantage of exogenous events that Republicans can't control, like the Woodward book or the NIE leak, or now this Foley scandal. And they've been getting quite a lot of them to take advantage of.
The irony is that Republicans had succeeded in bringing conservatives home by focusing on the war on terror. That's why the president's numbers were going up. This scandal hits directly at those core Republican voters - conservatives, religious conservatives, value voters. This is the party that's supposed to be the family of values. It also can hurt married suburban mothers.
And unlike the war on terror, where the debate is very muddled and Democrats are on all sides of this, on this one, Democrats are united. This is a pure intramural debate with the spectacle, once again, of Republicans appearing to fight among themselves. You've got the speaker versus John Boehner versus Tom Reynolds.
BLOCK: Now, Republicans have survived infighting in the years since they took control of Congress in 1994. This does come, though, right before a crucial election. It's being called an October surprise.
LIASSON: Well, yes, and the difference is, of course, Congress is out. There's no more legislation, no more opportunities for Republicans to set up debates in Washington with Democrats to put them on the, quote, “wrong side of the war on terror.” Now it's just hand to hand combat out there in the districts.
BLOCK: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks a lot.
LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa.
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