Beleaguered Republicans have been dealt a fresh blow by the publication of a new poll which suggests the Democrats are leading in 11 of 15 crucial races for the House of Representatives the clearest indication yet that the party's stranglehold in Washington may be about to be broken.
Senior party members are concerned that fallout over the scandal involving a Republican congressman sending sexual e-mail messages to a teenage Capitol Hill intern and growing public concern about the war in Iraq could result in Democrats seizing the House and possibly also the Senate in November's mid-term elections.
As the scandal over former congressman Mark Foley entered its sixth day, one Republican warned that there may even be further disclosures involving other politicians. "People are very, very concerned," said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "They think there are going to be more disclosures."
Until yesterday the scandal had resulted in the resignation only of Mr Foley, who promptly placed himself in a clinic for alcoholics and drug addicts and claimed through his lawyer that as a boy he had been sexually assaulted by a priest. But yesterday afternoon, Mr Foley's former chief-of-staff, Kirk Fordham, also quit, saying he had told the Speaker of the House of Representatives about his boss's troubling behaviour in regard to young interns three years ago.
His claim placed even greater pressure on the Speaker, Dennis Hastert, who has repeatedly dismissed calls for his own resignation. Despite receiving the public backing of President Bush, his position looks increasingly difficult.
Indeed, the new poll conducted for Reuters by Zogby International underlines how the scandal may have broader implications for the party. Carried out over a six-day period, including three days in which the scandal was headline news, the poll places Democrats ahead of the Republicans in 11 key congressional contests. The pollster John Zogby said: "This is a dismal showing for Republicans. Republicans ought to be very, very nervous. It's not just Mark Foley, but also what did the Speaker know and when did he know it, and the House leadership, what did they know? This could turn into a freefall for Republicans."
At the moment President Bush's party holds a 15-seat advantage over the Democrats in the 435-member House and a 55-45 majority in the Senate. But the poll has highlighted the vulnerability of the party ahead of the 7 November election. Republican incumbents are particularly at risk of losing their seats, the poll found, with seven of nine incumbents among the 15 races currently trailing their Democratic challengers.
Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said: "Would anyone really be surprised if the Republicans lost the House after the Foley affair?"
Unlike other scandals that the party has weathered in recent months, such as the party's links to lobbyists who acted illegally, Professor Sabato said the revelations involving Mr Foley had the potential to do much more damage outside Washington. "This connects with ordinary people," he said. "With the scandal over [Jack] Abramoff, [the Washington lobbyist who earlier this year was sentenced to more than five years in jail] people were saying, 'Well, tell me something I don't know'. But this is beyond the pale." He added: "This may be one of those scandals when you need a pound of flesh. The voters may extract a pound of flesh come 7 November."
In Washington, much of the attention has focused on who knew what about Mr Foley and when. Mr Hastert insists the first he knew about the Congressman's behaviour was last Friday as the story broke. But his deputy, Congressman John Boehner of Ohio, and House Republican campaign chairman, Congressman Tom Reynolds of New York, have both said they spoke with him about Mr Foley in spring last year.
Unconvincingly, Mr Hastert has sought to blame Democrats for pushing the scandal.
But the story is not going away any time soon. The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into Mr Foley's behaviour and several other teenage interns, or pages, have come forward to say rumours about Mr Foley and his apparent friendliness towards young men have been well known on Capitol Hill for years but no one confronted him about it.
On Tuesday Mr Foley's lawyer, David Roth, said that the Florida Congressman was gay and that he had been molested between the ages of 13 and 15 by a clergyman. But he added: "He does not blame the trauma he sustained as a young adolescent for his totally inappropriate e-mails. He continues to offer no excuse whatsoever for his conduct." Meanwhile, Mr LaHood called for a suspension of the page programme, in which 15- and 16-year-old interns work on the Capitol running errands for legislators. "Some members betray their trust by taking advantage of them. We should not subject young men and women to this kind of activity, this kind of vulnerability," he told CNN.
The Leader President Bush pronounced himself "disgusted" with the page scandal but his party has been damaged by the affair
Shamed Congressman Mark Foley resigned his seat on Friday after he admitted sending sexual messages to 16-year-olds
Beleaguered Speaker House Leader Dennis Hastert is accused of being either slow to act over Foley or covering up after him
Troubled Deputy Leader John Boehner knew about Foley in 2005, did nothing and is now attacking his boss, Dennis Hastert
Former House Leader Republican big hitter Tom DeLay stood down after being indicted for money laundering in Texas
Disgraced Lobbyist Jack Abramoff traded on his links to Republicans. He was jailed for five years on bribery chargesReuse content