With midterm elections less than five weeks away, the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that about half of likely voters say disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be very or extremely important when they enter the voting booth.
About two out of three of those voters said they would cast their ballots for Democrats in House races, further complicating the political landscape for Republicans already struggling against negative public perceptions.
The poll was conducted this week as House Republican leaders came under increasing pressure to explain what they knew of sexually explicit messages from former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida to teenage pages. Last month, another Republican, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, admitted that he accepted trips, meals and other gifts in exchange for legislative favors.
In that roiling environment, the poll found that by a margin of nearly 2-to-1 likely voters say Democrats would better combat corruption than Republicans. More troubling to Republicans, likely voters in some key Republican groups were split on whether to trust Democrats or Republicans to clean up corruption.
Voter perceptions about corruption underscore a strong sense of dissatisfaction, if not outright anger, toward Congress. And they help explain the pessimism with which some Republicans in and outside Congress now view their chances on Election Day.
Among likely voters, 28 percent said they are angry at the Republican leadership in Congress and 35 percent said they were dissatisfied but not angry.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the Associated Press that Republicans had been somewhat upbeat in early September, believing they would only lose a handful of House seats and still retain their majority. But after Foley's electronic exchanges with teenage boys became public on Friday, Simpson said he now is "not confident" they can keep control of the House.
"From Thursday it went (from) fairly confident we were going to keep the majority to a real tossup," he said.
The Foley scandal, with its proximity to the elections and its simple set of facts, has sent Republican leaders and GOP candidates on a political detour just as they were preparing their final offensive against Democrats to save control of Congress. Since Friday, the Foley affair has broadened amid questions about who in the GOP leadership had been warned about his behavior.
Like other Democrats, Joe Courtney, who is challenging Republican Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, has called for the resignation of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., over the Foley matter. But he said voters raised the subject without prompting during campaign stops last weekend.
"This Congress wasn't exactly held in high regard before this incident," he said. "It has a life of its own."
Lawrence Nuccio, a 78-year-old Republican from Glen Cove, N.Y., said he would vote for Democrats for the first time out of frustration with Republican congressional leaders.
"I'm a registered Republican, but when I turn around and see them trying to cover up - and that's what they're doing - and try to pass the buck to the Democrats, that's not right," Nuccio said. "You have elected officials who are running the country and you assume are doing the right thing, but they're not."
Whether they live in the suburbs or cities or rural areas, likely voters tended to trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle corruption. That didn't necessarily mean they would vote for Democratic candidates, but the results highlighted a vulnerability for Republicans. Even suburban men, traditionally a strong Republican voting bloc, were divided about which party could better address the problem of corruption.
Overall, Democrats maintained a 10-percentage point lead over Republicans in House races. Fifty-one percent of likely voters said they would vote for the Democrat in their congressional district; 41 percent said they would vote for the Republican. That's essentially unchanged from last month.
The number of adults who say the country is on the wrong track remained virtually unchanged from last month at 64 percent. That's still lower than in August, when it was 71 percent or May when it reached 73 percent.
The leading issue among likely voters remained Iraq, followed closely by the economy.
But the poll also found that President Bush's efforts to depict the war in Iraq as part of a larger campaign against terrorism and to portray Democrats as weak on national security was not altering the political landscape.
Approval of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq was at 37 percent among likely voters, down slightly from 41 percent last month. Bush's rating on handling foreign policy and terrorism also fell slightly, from 47 percent last month to 43 percent this month.
Similarly, recent good news on the economic front — from lower gas prices to a rising stock market — did not appear to pierce through the public's downbeat view of the economy. Fifty-six percent of likely voters disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy, compared to 59 percent who held that view last month.
The low approval ratings that have dogged the president and Congress were essentially unchanged from last month. Among likely voters, 24 percent approved of the way Congress was handling its job and 39 percent approved of Bush's job performance.
While many voters aim their antipathy at Republicans, who control Congress, others blame both parties for refusing to work together.
John Hart, a 47-year-old materials manager from Norwalk, Ohio, said he would prefer neither party controlled Congress after next month's elections.
"I've become much more cynical about the whole process just because it's no longer about what's your plans for the good of the country, now it's what can we throw at the other side and avoid getting tossed back at us," he said.
The poll of 741 likely voters was conducted Monday through Wednesday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
By Jim Kuhnhenn