WASHINGTON – More Democrats are going on the attack with campaign ads linking Republican candidates to the Internet sex scandal in the House of Representatives, while Republican candidates move to distance themselves from the embattled speaker of the House.
On Saturday, Democrat Patty Wetterling, a candidate for an open House seat, will continue the attack in the Democratic response to President George W. Bush's weekly radio address to the people as the party looks to reap political gains in elections Nov. 7.
The Democrats could take the House, the Senate or both. In the House it would take a gain of 15 of the 435 seats being elected, and a gain of six of the 33 Senate seats at stake would swing control of that chamber to the Democrats.
At the heart of the scandal are electronic communications between former Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned in disgrace a week ago, and teenage male pages. They are students from across the country who spend a year in Washington working in the House to learn the U.S. political system.
"Foley sent obvious predatory signals, received loud and clear by members of congressional leadership, who swept them under the rug to protect their political power," Wetterling says in the prerecorded address. "We must hold accountable all those complicit in allowing this victimization to happen."
Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. became on Friday the party's first major candidate to press for Hastert to resign, while campaign appearances by Hastert to show the flag for House Republican candidates were canceled. Hastert has come under heavy attack within his party for damage inflicted on the party just weeks before the elections.
"Hastert should resign as speaker," Kean said. "He is the head of the institution, and this happened on his watch."
Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a Republican write-in candidate in the race to replace former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who himself resigned because of legal problems, decided not to pursue plans to invite Hastert to raise money for her campaign after the Foley scandal broke.
"We just made a decision not to have" a fundraiser with Hastert, said Sekula-Gibbs' campaign manager, Lisa Diamond.
Democrats stepped up their attacks.
"What is going on in Washington? ... Deborah Pryce's friend Mark Foley is caught using his position to take advantage of 16-year-old pages. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert looked the other way," says an ad for Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, challenging seven-term Rep. Deborah Pryce, the No. 4 Republican in the House in a particularly competitive race.
And in culturally conservative southern Indiana, former Democratic Rep. Baron Hill took to the airwaves Friday with an ad attacking freshman Republican Mike Sodrel for taking thousands of dollars in donations from House Republican leaders "who knew about but did nothing to stop sexual predator congressman Foley."
At the same time, Hastert canceled plans to raise money for Sodrel on Tuesday.
Earlier, Republican Rep. Ron Lewis, a Baptist preacher and social conservative, canceled plans for a fundraiser with Hastert, who also dropped an appearance with Ohio GOP candidate Joy Padgett, who is in an uphill race to replace the disgraced Rep. Bob Ney.
The nonstop news cycles for over a week have been filled with details of Foley's lurid messages to former pages and accusations by former top Foley staff aide Kirk Fordham that top party aides, including some in Hastert's office, knew about Foley's problems and his relationship with pages years ago.
But with no significant developments Friday, GOP strategists hoped the party could catch its breath and gain traction on issues like lower gas prices, the peaking stock market and the economy. Great skittishness remained about unforeseen developments in the Foley saga, nevertheless.
Democrats are increasingly optimistic that they will retake the House and possibly even the Senate. Even a prominent Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, seemed pessimistic that his party will keep its hold on the House.
"It's happened in the past that we've had divided government in terms of the House and Senate," Cornyn said. "I'm sure we'll do our best to work together to try to address the nation's problems."