WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's campaign strategy of painting Democrats as soft on terrorism has been stalled by a congressional sex scandal, jeopardizing Republican hopes of holding the House of Representatives, analysts say.
Analysts said the timing of the scandal, a month before the Nov. 7 elections, could be trouble for Republicans who already have been feeling heat from voters over the Iraq war.
"This is a really serious problem for the Republicans right now," said Merle Black, a political scientist professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "We don't know how this is going to play out. We're a month away from the election. But right now, it's a major problem for the Republican leadership."
After a difficult summer of bad headlines out of Iraq, Bush appeared to be getting his footing in the weeks surrounding the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
His job approval ratings were up. And his message was playing widely that Republicans are better than Democrats at handling terrorism and that the United States must stay in Iraq to finish the job.
"The stakes are high, the Democrats are the party of cut and run. Ours is a party that has got a clear vision and says we will give our commanders and troops the support necessary to achieve that victory in Iraq. We will stay in Iraq, we will fight in Iraq and we will win in Iraq," Bush said in Stockton, California, on Tuesday.
It is a theme he is still pushing and will continue to highlight, but right now, the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who sent sexual messages to teen-aged congressional aides, is burning up the air waves.
"It's driving out everything. I don't know how long the legs will be, but probably pretty long, because it's the sort of scandal that's going to keep having odds and ends show up," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.
The Foley scandal has even drowned out a new book by Watergate reporter Bob Woodward that said a dysfunctional White House bungled the Iraq war and that Bush misled Americans about the extent of violence there.
Panicked Republicans are fearful of losing control of the House and possibly even the Senate. Democrats need only 15 seats to command the House for the first time since they were shoved out in 1994.
Polls have so far been inconclusive about the impact of the affair on voters, although a Time magazine poll issued on Friday showed almost 80 percent of respondents were aware of the scandal and only 16 percent approved of the Republicans' handling of it.
"The Foley matter is drowning out every other campaign message," Republican strategist Scott Reed said. "Candidates should consider pulling their television advertisements until this blows over."
He said this campaign season "is starting to feel like 1974" when the Watergate scandal costs Republicans a lot of seats.
For now Bush is supporting House Speaker Dennis Hastert despite charges Hastert was negligent in pursuing the Foley case. The White House strategy appeared to be to stick with Hastert unless more damaging information makes that impossible.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters it was hard to say what effect the Foley scandal would have on the election.
"I don't know. I think that anybody who gets up here and tries to make grand predictions about what an event is going to mean in an election that is more than a month away is absolutely certain to be wrong -- and also going to be guilty of committing folly from the podium," Snow said.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres doubted whether the Foley scandal would overwhelm the remainder of the election campaign and said Bush's message would still play. The president has an active travel schedule for October to try to help Republicans hold the U.S. Congress.
"It's highly likely that the primary issues of this election will reemerge over the course of the next four weeks," Ayres said. Fighting terrorism, he said, "plays to everybody. The fear of a terrorist attack is just beneath the surface for most Americans."
Did you find this article insightful?