WASHINGTON – Sidelined by scandal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been largely absent from the campaign trail this month as Democrats mount their strongest challenge in a decade to the Republicans' grip on the House.
"I'm going to be in 30-some districts," the Illinois Republican said in early October. "We're going to be continuing on the trail. We have a story to tell."
But that was before the full impact of the Mark Foley episode sank in — and before the House ethics committee began investigating what Hastert and other Republican leaders knew about the Florida congressman's inappropriate communications with teenage male pages.
Now, two weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections, the speaker is a symbol of the scandal — and, as such, a potential liability — for many of his endangered rank-and-file Republicans fighting to win re-election in a campaign environment favoring Democrats.
"It's not that he's toxic. It's just that the situation is," said longtime GOP consultant Rich Galen, lamenting the headwinds Republicans face as they seek to hang onto power. "Even if he's benign, benign ain't enough if you're five points back."
So, instead of campaigning across the country for Republicans and demonstrating the full range of his fundraising prowess, Hastert has spent much of the month in his own upstate Illinois district weathering the Foley fallout and fending off calls for his resignation.
Affable and avuncular, the former high school wrestling coach returned to the Capitol on Tuesday to testify before the ethics committee, and, a spokesman said, he will step up his campaigning in the election homestretch.
"The speaker is working to help get our message out," said spokesman Ron Bonjean, adding that Hastert has visited nearly 200 districts this year and that campaign schedules always fluctuate. "He will do more political travel before the election."
The Foley furor has led to speculation that Hastert's speakership may be in trouble should the GOP keep control of the House. Some Republican lawmakers have said privately that the political damage is too great for him to keep his perch. But others counter that the rank and file would be grateful if they hold the majority, and Hastert would go unchallenged. None would speak publicly, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
In the minority since 1994, Democrats are widely expected to gain seats next month. They need to pick up 15 to seize control of the House, and even Republicans concede that's a possibility given intense public discontent with President Bush's leadership, the GOP-controlled Congress' performance and continuing bloodshed in Iraq.
Foley's abrupt resignation on Sept. 29 and the scandal it spawned only added to those woes.
Almost immediately, questions were raised about whether Hastert's office responded swiftly enough when it learned of Foley's questionable behavior, and what Hastert himself knew. Two of Hastert's top lieutenants have said they talked with him about Foley months ago, conversations the speaker says he can't recall.
In early October, Hastert's campaign schedule was curtailed as he traveled back to Washington to address the tawdry turn of events as they rapidly unfolded.
Within days, at least two incumbents — Rep. Ron Lewis of Kentucky and Rep. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania — canceled campaign events with him. Preliminary discussions about other joint appearances elsewhere were abandoned as well, including in the Texas congressional district long held by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, himself felled by corruption allegations.
"We just felt it would be a distraction," Lisa Dimond, campaign manager for Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, said of having Hastert campaign for her boss, a write-in candidate in that district.
The fear among some Republicans is that the speaker's appearance in hard-fought GOP-held districts could do more harm than good, knocking Republicans off message, drawing further unwanted attention to the scandal and tipping the contests toward Democratic challengers.
Thus, Hastert's campaigning has been sporadic and strategic.
Two weeks after the scandal broke, the embattled House leader stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush in a downtown Chicago hotel ballroom in a show of solidarity. The two raised $1.1 million for Peter Roskam and David McSweeney, Republicans running for House seats in Illinois.
A few days later, the speaker appeared alongside White House spokesman Tony Snow, who headlined a fundraiser for Hastert in Illinois.
Hastert's only other high-profile campaign trail appearance in October came Monday, when he traveled to Johnson City in northeast Tennessee to stump for David Davis, a shoo-in to replace retiring GOP Rep. Bill Jenkins.
The Republican-friendly district is safe territory for Hastert; it hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress in more than 100 years.
Still, the scandal dogged Hastert.
"What Mark Foley did was wrong. It was ethically wrong. It's a shame. It's actually disgusting," he told inquiring reporters after a campaign rally.
Outside the venue, a few people protested his visit. One sign read: "Protect the children first, the party last," just a taste of the sentiments that likely will greet Hastert should he venture elsewhere between now and the election.