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The Real Issue

Hold on, kids, this roller coaster is taking yet another, really steep, dive. We've been up and down before. Republicans were in a months-long drop until mid-August, then President Bush and -- eventually -- his party recovered some of their lost elevation. But now the GOP is plunging again.

Obviously, the Republican Party's newest problems are linked to revelations that then-Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., sent sexually explicit messages to congressional pages and that House Republican leaders did little in response to the first suggestive messages that came to their attention. My hunch is, however, that the GOP's majorities on Capitol Hill are far more imperiled by the attention that voters are once again giving to the war in Iraq.

Even inside the Beltway, it should not be shocking news that many Americans have an extremely low opinion of politicians. Lawmakers' moral and ethical lapses don't surprise much of the electorate.

And although the overwhelming majority of members of Congress are honest, ethical, and well-intentioned -- regardless of party -- relatively few voters view them that way. And most voters don't make huge distinctions between the misbehavior by politicians wearing red jerseys and that by those wearing blue ones. To the average voter, Foley is just another sleazy politician.

Does this scandal hurt the party that holds the majority in Congress more than the opposition party? Of course. Will some voters make a partisan distinction? Yes. But will many? Probably not.

In the big scheme of things, the development that poses far more of a danger to the Republican majorities is that, after a respite of five weeks or so, attention is shifting back to the war in Iraq, and away from 9/11, terrorism, national security, and falling gasoline prices.

If the public's focus had remained on that terrorism/lower-gas-prices constellation of issues, Republicans had a 50-50 chance of holding the House. In all likelihood, they would have held their Senate majority as well. But if the spotlight is on Iraq for much of the final stage of the campaign, the Republicans could well lose both chambers.

In a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 805 registered voters, conducted from September 30 to October 2 by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, Bush's approval rating dropped 3 points, to 39 percent, and his disapproval rating increased by the same amount. Those shifts occurred after the NBC/Journal poll taken three weeks ago.

The percentage of voters who say that the war in Iraq will be one of the top two issues influencing their vote in the midterm elections increased from 27 percent to 36 percent. Iraq was the top concern in both polls, but the percentage of voters listing it rose 9 points in the second survey.

Because of the report that the Marine Corps intelligence chief in Iraq has declared the Anbar province effectively gone, the National Intelligence Estimate conclusion that the war in Iraq has made the war on terrorism harder to win, a new book by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, and one on former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Bush administration's handling of the war is once again grabbing much of the nation's attention and seriously hurting the GOP's chances of keeping Congress.

The percentage of voters who said they think the war in Iraq is helping in the United States' war on terrorism dropped 1 point in three weeks, but the percentage who said they think it hurt the U.S. efforts to combat terrorism soared, from 32 percent to 46 percent, echoing the experts' consensus in that National Intelligence Estimate.

Fifty-seven percent of registered voters said that America's safety from terrorism does not depend on success in Iraq; only 37 percent said it does -- another indication that the public doesn't buy one of the administration's key arguments. Finally, 61 percent of voters said that Iraq is mired in a civil war; only 29 percent disagreed.

There is no question that the Foley scandal, including indications that GOP congressional leaders did little or nothing to address the six-term lawmaker's inappropriate behavior, is a problem for Republicans. But in the larger scheme of things, the fact that this election is becoming a referendum on the war in Iraq is the real nightmare for the Republican Party.

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