Scandals dog incumbents in both parties

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is the only member of Congress running for re-election as a convicted felon, but he's not the only one running from scandal.

From admission of adultery by a Florida incumbent to a candidate under indictment in Louisiana, lawmakers in both parties are wrestling with embarrassment and imbroglio as they seek another term in Congress.

Even so, the historic presidential campaign may make candidate indiscretions less significant than they were in 2006, experts said. "Voters are paying attention to the presidential race to the exclusion of other developments," said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report. Ethical matters, he said, are "pretty far down the list of priorities for voters."

A jury found Stevens guilty Monday of concealing more than $250,000 in gifts he received from wealthy friends. The 84-year-old Republican vowed to appeal the conviction and also to continue campaigning for an eighth term even as the presidential candidates, fellow Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, called for his resignation.

A campaign spokesman did not return a call seeking comment, but Stevens told Fox News he would return home today to restart his campaign. Asked why Alaskans would vote for him, Stevens said: "Ask them. I know they will."

Alaska Democratic Senate candidate Mark Begich has mostly avoided the issue. But on Tuesday, as Stevens announced he received an endorsement from an Eskimo whaling group, Begich spoke up.

"The charges against Senator Stevens were serious and the conviction sends a strong message that no man is above the law," Begich said in a statement.

Although Begich had remained quiet, the national Democratic Party aired television spots publicizing the trial. The party developed a slogan, "Ted Stevens: It's not about Alaska anymore." State Democrats have launched a website, retireted.com.

Candidates running against someone under investigation or in turmoil must be cautious in their attacks, said Bruce Gronbeck, director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.

"You have to be careful you don't generate sympathy," Gronbeck said, noting that scandals get a lot of exposure. "If any of these opponents comes out really strongly they just haven't been paying attention to what's happening in the media world."

Republicans have tread lightly with Florida Democrat Rep. Tim Mahoney, who admitted to having extramarital affairs. Cook predicts the race is likely to be won by his Republican opponent, Tom Rooney.

Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson has faced little criticism despite being charged last year with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. He is likely to win re-election, Cook says.

Scandals have sunk incumbents. In 2006, Curt Weldon, a 10-term Republican from suburban Philadelphia, was facing a strong opponent when the FBI raided his home. Though associates later pleaded guilty, Weldon was not charged. He lost 56% to 44%.

Another Republican under investigation, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, is considered by Cook to be a safe bet to keep his seat, even though his opponent, Tim Prince, has made Lewis' conduct a centerpiece of his campaign in radio ads and mailings.

"Our whole campaign theme has been 'restore principles to Congress,' " said Patrick Kahler, Prince's campaign manager.

Authorities have contacted Lewis' lawyers, but Lewis is not sure what the investigation is about, spokesman Jim Specht said. "His position is that he's always done everything to meet the highest ethical standard," Specht said.

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