Hastert Struggling as GOP Scrambles on Damage Control

In the countless political lifetimes that have occurred since Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley resigned amid revelations that he engaged in improper conduct with young pages on Capitol Hill, Republicans have had very little good news.

Party strategists working on key political races around the country report declining poll numbers for their candidates, and they are worried that the party does not have a plan in place to stop the damage from threatening their congressional majorities.

The burden for solving the public relations problem related to questions about how the leadership handled months, perhaps years, of indications that Foley was engaging in improper conduct, has fallen on the broad shoulders of Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House.

Hastert has spent the last few days in his native Illinois, reaching out by telephone to staff, colleagues and allies to formulate a plan and gauge opinions.

Except for the occasional interview, however, Hastert has kept a low public profile. He is scheduled to travel next week on behalf of Republican congressional candidates, although at least two of them have already cancelled planned events because of the controversy.

Hastert is at the center of the storm, not just because he is the party's top official in the House. Questions have also been raised by other members of the leadership and by at least one key congressional aide about whether Hastert acted aggressively enough to address concerns over Foley's actions.

While many Republicans assume that Hastert will step down as speaker sometime in the next week, Hastert and his advisers say he has no such plans. His current strategy is to take responsibility in a general sense and to ensure that the page program -- in which the young people with whom Foley communicated improperly by e-mail and instant messaging participated -- is safe for its participates.

Thursday, Hastert's office announced a toll-free number that former pages can use as a tip line to report any past improper conduct.

Hastert is also going on the offensive, accusing Democrats tied to former President Clinton and the media of promoting the Foley story in order to hurt Republican chances in the midterm elections. Although Hastert has offered no proof for the allegations, such charges in the past have worked well in inspiring the party's conservative base to turn out to vote.

Hastert is not the smoothest communicator on television, but he retains the quiet loyalty of many Republicans in the House who got him the speaker's job in the first place. In a Wednesday interview with the Washington Examiner, Vice President Dick Cheney offered words of strong support for Hastert. And the speaker's aggressive and determined staff is monitoring the situation and trying to formulate a plan that would solve the party's problems without Hastert having to give up his office.

Hastert's fate is not clear. But Republicans outside the speaker's office are clear on one point: Despite Hastert's moves so far, the party's problems stemming from the Foley scandal are not yet solved, and Election Day keeps getting closer.

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