Republicans Struggle With North Korea and the Foley Scandal

Just when Republicans wondered whether anything could get the nation's attention off the Foley sex scandal, they got some unexpected, unsolicited, unwanted and unintended help from -- of all people -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The Pyongyang government's announcement that it had exploded an atomic weapon dominated the news after more than a week of the media reporting daily on former Rep. Mark Foley's contacts with pages and former pages and how the GOP leadership had dealt with him.

Although political pros disagreed widely over how much damage the Foley factor had caused, all agreed on one thing: It was bad news for Republicans.

On Sunday night, the Washington Post reported that as far back as 2000, a Republican congressman, Jim Kolbe from Arizona, had known of Foley's inappropriate Internet exchanges and had confronted him.

The impact of the Post report may have been diminished because it came just as North Korea made its startling announcement.

But a new ABC News/Washington Post poll confirms that Republicans have taken a beating recently. The poll suggests voters are putting more faith in Democrats on what voters say are the top issues: Iraq, terrorism, the economy, immigration, health care and ethics in government.

Korean Leader Playing Politics

Most observers don't believe Kim Jong Il was trying to ease the political woes of President Bush and his party. Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy specialist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, believes he was trying to hurt GOP chances in the election.

But O'Hanlon said the North Korean detonation will have the opposite effect and will help President Bush "by validating his hardline approach."

Now that the North Koreans have exploded what may be a nuclear weapon, O'Hanlon believes many Americans will decide that Bush's refusal to engage in direct talks was the right approach, and that nothing could have deterred North Korea from its nuclear ambitions.

O'Hanlon, who disagreed with Bush's stance, said it would now be harder for those who, like himself, believe the United States should negotiate "one on one" with North Korea.

News of the explosion has also diverted much of the media's attention from the GOP's handling of the Foley affair. Even if a sharp, partisan debate should develop over policy on North Korea, it is a debate Republicans much prefer to a slugfest over the page scandal.

Before the North Korean announcement, ranking members from both parties appearing on ABC's "This Week" duked it out over the Foley scandal, despite the Republicans' best efforts to change the subject.

The chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, Adam Putnam, insisted that except for a tiny number of congressional districts, Americans wanted to talk about "falling gas prices … the economy … Iraq … [and] the war on terrorism."

Republicans have been trying for a week and a half to get the nation to focus on such issues. The trouble for the GOP is that even before Mark Foley became a household name, the party had apparently lost its edge on those issues.

Poll Shows the Foley Effect

The ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests the main impact from the Foley factor has been the time Republicans have had to devote to it instead of getting their message out to voters. It stalled the slight comeback the GOP made last month. By a 54-41 margin, both registered voters and "likely" voters now prefer Democrats in the congressional race. It has been more than 20 years since Democrats held so large a lead this close to Election Day.

While Democrats may rejoice in the GOP's problems, the poll shows voters are deeply skeptical of their party, too. Seventy-five percent of registered voters said Democrats would not have handled the sex scandal any better than Republicans have. And 62 percent believe Democrats are using the Foley affair only for political advantage, not because they have legitimate concerns.

When it comes to ethics and honesty, Democrats do score higher in the poll, but only by a small margin: 18 percent to 11 percent. Seventy percent see no difference between the two parties. Those attitudes are about what they were before ABC News broke the story on Foley's Internet messages on Sept. 29.

The poll shows that voters are in a serious mood. Only 18 percent said the scandal is a very important consideration in their vote. That number pales in comparison to the 83 percent who called Iraq very important, and the 78 percent who feel the same way about terrorism.

In sum, it appears that if voters decide to punish GOP candidates next month, it will be for reasons other than Foley. But if the GOP is going to make gains in coming weeks, the scandal must recede into the background instead of, as one Republican congressman put it, "eating up all the oxygen."

With such widespread discontent over Iraq and terrorism, it is difficult for the GOP to regain ground on national security issues, even if voters lose interest in the Foley scandal.

But North Korea could offer a new opportunity.

If in the coming weeks the president is seen as a strong, capable leader in dealing with the North Koreans, that could help his party on Nov. 7.

And, unlike Iraq, there are no horrifying pictures from the Korean peninsula of daily killings and mutilations.

"If the North Koreans were trying to influence our elections," O'Hanlon said, "then they may have succeeded. But not in the way they wanted."