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By LIZ SIDOTI
In a twist on the old Watergate question, the Republican Party is struggling to answer: What did GOP leaders know of a congressman’s suggestive exchanges with former pages, all teenage males, and when did they know it?
The truth could determine not only their own political futures but also whether the party can recover from the scandal surrounding former Republican Rep. Mark Foley — and manage to remain in power after Nov. 7.
"I don’t think this is so much about Foley as it is about the handling of this," Rick Davis, a Republican strategist, said Monday as the drama rocked the House GOP five weeks before midterm elections, much to Democrats’ delight.
"The question becomes who’s getting thrown overboard besides Foley to get this to go away," said Tony Fabrizio, another GOP consultant.
The six-term Florida congressman resigned abruptly on Friday after reports surfaced that he sent salacious electronic messages to teenage boys who had worked as House pages. The tawdry turn of events set off finger-pointing among House Republicans and overshadowed what the GOP had hoped would be a triumphant final work week highlighting the party’s national security credentials before the campaign’s homestretch.
Now, the Republican Party — already facing an unfriendly political environment and the fallout from a new book critical of President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war — finds itself knocked even further off message and working to contain the political damage.
Punting on Monday, White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters: "The House has to clean up the mess, to the extent there is a mess."
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., denounced sexually explicit instant messages Foley is accused of sending in 2003 to teens as "vile and repulsive." He denied that House leaders had access to them until the instant messages surfaced in media reports Friday.
However, Hastert’s staff and some Republicans in leadership, including Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House campaign effort, for months had been aware of an inappropriate 2005 e-mail exchange between Foley and a Louisiana teenage boy who once worked as a page. Reynolds said he also told Hastert. The speaker says he doesn’t recall the conversation but also does not dispute Reynolds’ account.
Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also has known since the spring that Foley had contacted the teen, but a spokesman said the leader didn’t know details of the contact.
GOP leaders are facing questions of a cover-up while Democrats across the country seize on the scandal, demanding an independent investigation and calling for some Republicans to resign their leadership posts.
Republican candidates, meanwhile, are distancing themselves from Foley and seeking inquiries. Some Republicans also are calling for accountability from GOP leaders who knew about some of Foley’s reported behavior and failed to take action.
"If they knew or should have known the extent of this problem, they should not serve in leadership," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican in a competitive re-election fight in Connecticut.
Like other Democrats, his opponent Diane Farrell called the scandal indicative of House Republicans run amok, saying: "This leadership, which has been so terribly wrong on so many policies, now seems willing to cover up events to protect its members."
Privately, some Republicans concede that the party now is in even more danger of losing control of the House, and a few fear the scandal could spill over to the Senate as well. Democrats need to gain 15 House seats and six in the Senate for control after a dozen years of Republican rule.
The fear is that voters already angry with Congress and inclined to favor Democrats will view the scandal as an indictment against the GOP in general and buy into the Democratic argument that change is needed.
In light of the scandal, at least one Republican-held House seat considered safe for Republicans now may be in jeopardy — Foley’s seat in Florida. His name must remain on the ballot even though Republicans chose a replacement candidate, state Rep. Joe Negron.
Seeing an opportunity, Democrats rushed to the aid of challenger Tim Mahoney, and the candidate himself wasted no time, launching a fresh round of television ads featuring former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham calling Mahoney someone who "believes in faith, family and personal responsibility."
Carl Forti, a spokesman for the House Republican campaign effort, said that’s the only seat that could be affected. "I don’t know of any member of Congress who’s ever lost because of something a member did or didn’t do," he said.
"If Democrats want to play politics with this, they’re going to be bitten too," Forti said.
Still, the fallout from the Foley scandal also could complicate Reynolds’ re-election bid.
The New York Republican’s race against Jack Davis, a millionaire maverick Democrat, has been close for months, and Reynolds’ disclosure that he had been told months ago of Foley’s e-mails plays into one of Davis’ central arguments — that Reynolds, as a GOP leadership member, cares more about political dealmaking than his district.
In a news conference in Buffalo, N.Y., Reynolds defended himself while surrounded by about 30 children and as many parents. He said he acted properly. "I heard something. I took it to my supervisor," he said, referring to Hastert.
Other Republicans in close re-election fights also are feeling heat.
In Ohio, Rep. Deborah Pryce, a House leadership member, is facing questions about what she knew, and she joined other Republicans — including Reps. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Clay Shaw of Florida and Heather Wilson of New Mexico — in saying they plan to donate to charities or return the contributions they received from Foley. Sen. George Allen of Virginia says he’ll do the same.
For Hastert, Boehner and others in leadership but not in close races, the ramifications could spread beyond November and into House leadership elections should Republicans hold the House — now a big "if," some Republicans say.
Three decades ago, Republican Richard M. Nixon was dogged by the question of what did the president know about the break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate and when did he know it.
In November 1974, Democrats capitalized on the scandal, seizing scores of congressional seats as the Watergate class swept to office.
Liz Sidoti covers politics for The Associated Press.