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It seems likely that the party will instead need to reckon with sex and scandal throughout the final weeks of the election. As conservative George F. Will, writing in the Washington Post last week, put it, the Foley affair is "a maraschino cherry atop the Democrats' delectable sundae of Republican miseries." In the latest TIME poll, conducted the week after the news broke, nearly 80% of respondents said they were aware of the scandal, and two-thirds of them were convinced that Republican leaders had tried to cover it up. Among the registered voters who were polled, 54% said they would be more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, compared with 39% who favored the Republican--nearly a perfect reversal of the 51%-40% advantage the G.O.P. enjoyed as recently as August. There was even worse news in a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center that showed a precipitous drop in Republican support among frequent churchgoers, one of the most important and loyal elements of the G.O.P. base. There's no indication that they are clamoring to be Democrats, but the risk is that they will simply stay home on Election Day.
One of the victims may turn out to be campaign chairman Reynolds, who suddenly found himself running as many as 8 points behind in his upstate New York House-seat re-election bid, which had appeared fairly safe a week earlier. Hastert's job seems secure for the moment, barring any big new revelations, in part because the House Speaker is not merely a party leader; the role was established under the Constitution. It would be difficult to replace Hastert without summoning Congress back into town from the campaign trail. Nor would an ugly fight over who would succeed him be good for the party's prospects in November. Still, Republicans are not particularly eager to be seen with him. His campaign schedule is starting to look a lot lighter, as House candidates across the country are turning down his offers to do fund raisers for them. Even the leadership's much vaunted discipline seems to be in tatters. Majority leader Boehner defended himself last week by attacking Hastert: "My position is, it's in his corner, it's his responsibility." And the third in command, whip Roy Blunt, suggested that things would have been different if he had been informed. Not incidentally, both men are expected to consider making a bid for the top job if Hastert ultimately steps down--and maybe if he doesn't. But by then the job description may be House minority leader.