From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Twenty-nine days before election day... Before the news broke of North Korea's nuclear test, it had been hard to imagine what events might pop up over the next four weeks to provide Republicans with some relief from the negative storylines of the Foley scandal and Iraq, where the rate of US troop casualties has shot up. Voters continue to call Iraq their top issue for the midterm elections, and the Foley scandal eclipsed last week's stock market highs and gas price and unemployment lows.
The news out of North Korea, bad as it might be for the Administration's diplomatic efforts there, returns Bush to the bully pulpit -- he'll make a statement at 9:45 am -- and may help Republicans return the focus to the more favorable, broader security debate. For example, Republicans occasionally hit certain Democrats for opposing a missile defense shield. But the ongoing House Ethics Committee and Justice Department probes will keep the Foley scandal in the news.
The White House and GOP leadership continue to stand behind Speaker Dennis Hastert, with President Bush scheduled to appear with Hastert at an open-press fundraising event in Chicago on Thursday. Political observers are watching for signs that the scandal has hurt the party's midterm election outlook on two levels -- in national public opinion surveys, and through less obvious but equally crucial blows to party fundraising and turnout efforts. The latest Newsweek Poll has Bush's job approval rating at 33% and Democrats leading Republicans on the generic congressional ballot test by 12 points among adults. The poll also finds that more than half of those surveyed think Hastert was aware of Foley's behavior and covered it up. The better clues, though, will come from polls of likely voters, which is where real signs of disillusionment among the GOP base would show up.
Bush's event with Hastert on Thursday isn't the only damage-control effort on his schedule this week. He'll also meet with the head of the Southern Baptist Convention at the White House on Wednesday. Per its website, the organization declares that homosexuality "is not a 'valid alternative lifestyle'... It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals."
Social conservatives reportedly were dispirited even before the Foley scandal arose because they felt the GOP-run Congress didn't address enough of their agenda this year. The scandal makes it that much more likely that the party's turnout operation is going to have to rely on paid and out-of-state volunteers on election day. The Republican National Committee's vaunted 72-hour Program helped Sen. Lincoln Chafee get renominated and helped the party retain a California House seat in a special election this year, but both races cost the party a couple million bucks, raising questions about whether they'll be able to replicate that effort in dozens of races simultaneously on November 7.
The scandal also has interfered with the leadership's own efforts to get Republicans elected. Some candidates are canceling events with Hastert. Other Hastert events which stay on the books may bring in less money. House campaign committee chair Tom Reynolds is now absorbed with winning his own, suddenly very difficult re-election campaign. Hastert and his colleagues are mixing their messages by saying on the one hand that "the buck stops here," while on the other hand continuing to allege that Democrats are to blame. Meanwhile, TV and radio ads mentioning the Foley scandal, paid for by Democratic candidates, committees, and interest groups, are popping up in races around the country.
The Cook Political Report updated its House race ratings last Friday, adding a number of GOP-held seats to the vulnerable column: "Republicans currently have 43 seats in the competitive column - 25 of those districts are in Toss-up and three are in Lean Democratic," House analyst Amy Walter writes. "Last week the number was 37. Democrats continue to have just nine seats in the competitive category. None are in toss-up."
We'd note that several of the Republican-held districts where the Cook ratings have changed for the worse are districts which President Bush and Vice President Cheney have visited recently to raise money. Those include traditionally safe districts held by Reps. Richard Pombo and John Doolittle in California and open seats in Nevada and Florida. This suggests that White House political staffers are keeping their ears to the ground and responding quickly to signs of softening -- but it also means that even before the Foley scandal, Republicans were confronting a broadening pool of vulnerable seats.
And just about every hot Senate race of the cycle will host a debate this week: