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First glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Thirty-two days before election day...  The House GOP leadership nearly went off the rails in the last 48 hours or so over the Mark Foley scandal, but seems to be in the process of completing the turn.  Top Republicans have united behind Speaker Dennis Hastert and are lauding the steps being taken to ensure that a Foley-like situation doesn't happen again.  Hastert and other Republicans continue to blame Democrats and the media for the eruption of the scandal, a tactic that might help reinvigorate a dispirited GOP base.  The White House appears to think the storm has blown over, judging from President Bush's phone call to Hastert last night after Bush avoided taking reporters' questions at his events all yesterday. 

Assessing the damage to the GOP's midterm election outlook will take some time.  At the least, the scandal probably has cost the party Foley's House seat and has landed Rep. Tom Reynolds, chair of the House GOP campaign committee, in a real battle for re-election because of his early knowledge of the Foley e-mails.  Democrats will try to keep up the pressure on Republican candidates over contributions from Foley and whether they'll vote for Hastert for Speaker.  But the GOP's immediate, twofold challenge is to show the public they're taking the matter seriously and get to talking about something else -- fast. 

The former was what yesterday's events were all about.  Hastert faced the press, took responsibility for the mishandling of the scandal, and laid out steps being taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.  The House Ethics Committee not only moved speedily to investigate, issuing four dozen subpoenas, but also displayed an unusual degree of openness by publicizing the time of its meeting yesterday and by having its top members hold a press conference afterward to lay out their plans.  Its projected timing of reporting back "within weeks" doesn't necessarily mean that will happen before election day.

The latter is the bigger challenge.  As one politically astute Republican member told First Read, every time a new angle to the scandal emerges, it hurts the party's efforts to move beyond it.  House Republicans already lost an opportunity to promote a key legislative accomplishment this week: the funding of the border fence they've been hoping to use as an issue against Democrats.  President Bush signed the funding into law on Wednesday but party lawmakers were too distracted to tout it.  (Not only was a significant victory for them, but it represented a major concession by the President, who has called for broader immigration reform.)

House GOP campaign committee spokesperson Carl Forti explained to First Read how the party's candidates get back on offense: "Keep spending millions talking about local issues."  "Most of our candidates are already back to normal," he added, meaning that the races "have settled down politically."

The White House's approach to the scandal all week has been a carefully gauged combination of occasional words of support for Hastert, calls for all the facts to come out, and efforts to steer clear by saying that "the co-equal branch of government" (which they don't always view as co-equal) needs to deal with this themselves, and by focusing on other issues.  Yesterday it was education and No Child Left Behind; today it's jobs and the economy.  Anticipating good news on this front, the White House scheduled a roundtable and remarks on jobs and the economy for President Bush at a FedEx facility in Washington today.  But the September jobs reports shows that only 51,000 jobs were created last month, the fewest in almost a year. 

These two days spent focusing on domestic issues are probably a welcome break for a White House that has had a hard time lately keeping public attention focused on the broader war on terror rather than on the unpopular war in Iraq.  The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out earlier this week showed that the release of portions of the National Intelligence Estimate hurt Bush's case for the Iraq war, which remains the dominant issue of the midterm elections.  The latest development undercutting Bush's case, after the NIE and the Woodward book, is Senate Armed Services chair John Warner saying yesterday that if the Iraqi government can't reduce the sectarian violence within 90 days, the United States should consider a "change of course." 

"If we lose the House," the GOP member told First Read yesterday, "people may come back and say [the Foley scandal] was the decisive moment.  No, the decisive moment probably was the decision to go to Iraq."  In his National Journal column, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook agrees, saying that despite all of the attention on the Foley affair, "the GOP's majorities on Capitol Hill are far more imperiled by the attention" -- per the NBC/Journal poll -- "that voters are once again giving to the war in Iraq...  [I]n the larger scheme of things, the fact that this election is becoming a referendum on the war in Iraq is the real nightmare for the Republican Party."

And on Sunday, NBC's Meet the Press will air the latest in its Senate debate series, a face-off between Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) and challenger Claire McCaskill (D).  Close observers view the Missouri race as the real bellwether among Senate races this cycle -- the one that serves as the dividing line between those GOP-held seats that seem likelier than not to fall to Democrats (Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) and those where Republicans may retain a slight edge (Tennessee, Virginia).  "It is also the 'cleanest, most unadulterated race' in the sense that you don't have an incumbent who has made mistakes, is ideologically far-removed from the state, quirky, or has major scandals in state," Cook tells First Read.

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