GOP hoping Craig is a faded memory by November '08

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- At the start of the week, it was unlikely that many people outside of Idaho and Washington, D.C., had heard of Sen. Larry E. Craig.

But after Monday's disclosure of a guilty plea in a men's-room sex sting, Craig became the target of jokes - and a national embarrassment to a Republican Party facing a defining election next year.


Craig is scheduled to announce his resignation today in Boise, Republican leaders told the Associated Press, after days of calls from high-profile Republicans that he step down. Swift and unified in their insistence that Craig, 62, resign, party leaders left the three-term senator little room to maneuver.

The move could solve the GOP's immediate problems in Idaho, enabling a Republican governor to name a Republican replacement who would become the presumptive front-runner in 2008.


But the national party must still fend off criticism, amplified by Craig's arrest, that the moral-values rhetoric of some party leaders is undercut by their actions.

Combined with bad news in Iraq and a sitting president mired in low approval ratings, Republicans are on the defensive with the first presidential primaries just months away.

"It's a body blow every single month," said Jim Dornan, a veteran Republican campaign manager and strategist. "We can't seem to stanch the bleeding."

For decades, the Republican Party has built national majorities in presidential elections with the help of solid support from conservative voters with deep religious convictions.

Particularly in Southern states, the GOP made inroads by persuading Democrats and independents that the party better represented their views on abortion, religion and gay marriage.

Exit polls showed that values were on the minds of many voters who headed to the polls in 2004 to re-elect President Bush.

But two years later, the GOP lost control of the House of Representatives shortly after the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who had sought relationships with young legislative pages.

In July, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter acknowledged that he had been a client of the so-called D.C. Madam.


This week, Craig joined the list of the disgraced.

Some Republican strategists predict that the party will suffer few long-term effects from the spate of ethical lapses. The Iraq war - not morality and values - will be the overriding issue in the 2008 elections, they say. And by the time votes are cast, the Craig scandal will seem like a distant memory.

"A year is an eternity in politics," Dornan said.

Opponents should think twice before trying to exploit the troubles of Craig and other fallen Republicans for partisan gain, said Republican pollster Whit Ayers.

"I'm sure some Democrats will try to make it an issue, but they can't go very far with it without Republicans saying 'William Jefferson and $90,000 in the freezer,'" said Ayers, referring to the Louisiana Democratic congressman indicted in June.

"Plus, acting 'holier than thou' is a dangerous strategy," he said. "As sure as somebody makes it an issue, a Democrat is going to get caught doing something exceedingly embarrassing."


As pressure mounted for Craig to resign yesterday, Republicans got more bad news. Republican Sen. John W. Warner announced that he would not seek a sixth term next year in Virginia, a state that has elected a Democratic governor and senator in recent years, complicating the party's efforts to regain control of Congress.

Socially conservative voters don't appear to be the major prize in this year's presidential primaries.

The party's leader in national polls, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has supported abortion rights and is in his third marriage. Another top-tier candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is a Mormon who is viewed skeptically by some fundamentalist Christians.

Still, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, those conservative voters form an important bloc of the Republican base, and any slip in their support could have significant consequences.

"A 10 percent defection in the conservative coalition is enough to prevent the Republicans from holding the White House," Schaller said. "And these continued scandals have got to give some of these moral values organizations reason to take pause."

It's unlikely that those voters would turn to a Democratic candidate, Schaller said, because the nominee will almost assuredly be a backer of abortion rights. But if a credible minor-party candidate enters the race - which has happened in the past four elections with Ralph Nader and Ross Perot - a lack of enthusiasm among conservatives could be crucial, he said.


"It seriously undermines their ability to get to the high 40s or 50 percent," he said of the GOP.

Perhaps the best hope for the Republican Party, some strategists said, is in the direction their opponents are taking. If Democrats nominate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the GOP assault will be fierce - conjuring images of her husband's sex scandal, as well as issues such as lost Rose Law Firm billing records.

"If Hillary is the Democratic nominee, it is going to motivate those voters, no matter what," Dornan said.