Stay-at-Home Conservatives

Is President Bush in a position to throw his party a lifeline? We'll find out on Election Day.

Congressional Republicans may have sailed into the perfect storm. "Republicans in this campaign were gaining momentum over the last couple of weeks," former presidential adviser David Gergen said. "Now we have a one-two punch, first with the Bob Woodward book and now with the Mark Foley scandal."

Is President Bush in a position to throw his party a lifeline? He did that in 2002, when he barnstormed the country for Republican candidates and his party unexpectedly gained House seats. Heading into this midterm election, however, a majority of Americans (57 percent to 37 percent) said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes Bush than for one who supports him, a poll taken September 29 to October 2 by Opinion Research for CNN found.

Many years ago, the story goes, the campaign manager for a very unpopular presidential contenders in Ohio. "I have wonderful news for you," the campaign manager said. "We're going to come to campaign in your district."

"That is good news," the local candidate responded. "But I'm afraid I'm going to be in Florida visiting my parents."

"Wait a minute," the campaign manager said. "I haven't told you when we're coming."

"It doesn't matter," the candidate replied. "Whenever you show up, I'll be in Florida visiting my parents."

This year, congressional incumbents hope they can find shelter from the storm by keeping their campaigns local. After all, 52 percent of registered voters surveyed October 6-8 for another CNN poll said their own House member deserves to be re-elected. But that's the lowest level of support since 1994, when the last big storm swept away the Democratic majority.

Another possible refuge: Maybe voter anger is targeted at all incumbents, not just Republicans. But no. Asked whether most Democratic members of Congress deserve to be re-elected, 50 percent said yes. Just 35 percent said they didn't deserve re-election. In contrast, only 36 percent said that most Republican members deserve re-election; 51percent said they do not deserve to be re-elected.

Republicans are afraid their base will abandon them, as it did in the post-Watergate election of 1974. "President Reagan's pollster coined the term 'the embarrassed Republican vote,' " notes Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation. "The Democrats won this huge landslide in 1974, only the vote for them was the same as it was four years earlier ... the difference being the extraordinary drop-off of Republicans."

This year, conservatives are not just embarrassed. Many of them are angry—over government spending, a big new prescription drug program, and Iraq. "They've gotten nothing but lip service from this president and this Congress," conservative political consultant Richard Viguerie said.

Republicans are more dependent than usual on the conservative vote this year. Self-described liberals polled by CNN are planning to vote solidly Democratic (84 percent). Republicans are losing the middle. Moderates intend to vote Democratic by nearly 2-to-1 (59 percent to 32 percent). Although 63 percent of conservatives still plan to vote Republican, nearly one-third of them say they'll support a Democratic House candidate. And if conservatives are embarrassed by the congressional scandals, a lot of them could stay home, just as they did after Watergate.

The White House hopes they'll put the scandals aside. Asked about the shakiness of the GOP's conservative base, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, "Come Election Day, the question is whether people are going to be voting on the basis of disgusting instant messages ... or something that's probably more important to everybody, which is safety, security, and prosperity."

The answer is not yet certain. But a lot more congressional races seem to be in play now than were competitive a week ago—such as in former Rep. Foley's Florida district and in the New York district represented by Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Republicans hope that good economic news—lower gasoline prices, a rising stock market—will calm the waters. But this year's storm is not coming from the economy. It's coming from a different direction.