Can the Republican Party save itself from disaster in next month's elections? The task may be as simple - and as com plex - as looking inward to its base of white, churchgoing voters.
In a sense, the GOP now can control its own destiny. If it can generate the requisite enthusiasm among its core supporters, it stands a chance of holding one or both houses of Congress. But, if the base remains as alienated on Nov. 7 as it is today, the Bush administration can kiss goodbye to a friendly legislature.
The Gallup Poll of Oct. 6-8, taken after the Mark Foley scandal had dominated the media for a week, showed a dramatic drop in the base's support for Republican candidates. Pre-Foley, 58 percent of whites who attend church services frequently said they'd vote for Republican candidates of Congress this year. Post-scandal, that dropped to 47 percent.
Indeed, while support for Republicans among non-churchgoing whites fell 6 percent, backing by frequent churchgoers plummeted more than 20 percent.
Karl Rove saved Bush in three elections by generating huge enthusiasm among the Republican base. In 2000, Bush got 49 million votes. By 2004, Rove & Co. had upped that to 62 million by squeezing a turnout from the base. Today's defection by these same voters imperils Republican fortunes in this, the fourth election of Bush's tenure.
And that defection comes not from issues like Social Security, Medicare or the environment. Rather, it stems from a scandal that goes directly to the core question of morality.
Gallup asked voters which party would do the best job of promoting morality in America. Democrats were favored, incredibly, by eight points. The Foley scandal is turning off churchgoers on the Republicans just as gay marriage and abortion soured them on the Democrats. Two-thirds of these GOP base voters now agree that the House leadership covered up the scandal simply because it feared losing the seat.
How can the Republicans get their base back? Moral issues would seem to be the obvious way, but none are in play at the moment. GOP strategists will surely pray for something to pop up. But with two new conservative justices augmenting the Supreme Court's right wing, the base may think it can afford to relax a bit and indulge its animosity over the Foley affair by either staying home or voting Democrat.
For now, the best the Republicans can do is make their pitch over national security and terrorism. The clear differences between the parties over the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency wiretaps loom large in this age of impending terrorist attack. The Clinton administration's laxity in addressing the terrorist threat and the success of the tools the Bush people have put in place in keeping attacks at bay illustrate the importance and salience of these issues.
We might have no Brooklyn Bridge, for example, if the NSA hadn't intercepted chatter about blowing it up through its wiretaps and shared this information with the NYPD, as required by the Patriot Act. And we'd never have ID'd the man trying to strike at the bridge had we not been authorized to conduct lawyer-less questioning of terror suspects.
Will the GOP base realize the importance of these issues? Will they get it in time?