Internal polling for congressional Republicans released yesterday shows that the scandal engulfing Democratic Rep. Gary A. Condit is hurting his party’s ability to reach voters on other issues.
When pollster Dave Winston asked people to identify the Democrats’ message, respondents cited “Democratic distractions” as one of the top issues.
Republican sources confirmed that respondents were referring specifically to Mr. Condit of California, who has admitted having an affair with missing intern Chandra Levy. The scandal has received heavy media coverage all summer, pushing other Democratic issues such as the minimum wage and health care off the front pages.
“The lack of a coherent message, along with internal distractions, is clearly having an impact on the ability of congressional Democrats to get their message out,” Mr. Winston wrote in a memo to Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Also yesterday, Mr. Watts said Vice President Richard B. Cheney will hold an unusual joint strategy session with Senate and House Republicans next week before lawmakers go home for the August recess. One topic will be Republicans’ growing need to reach women voters and to stress the GOP’s work on education.
Overall, the tracking poll showed House Republicans gaining two percentage points on Democrats since late May. Democrats still hold a 44 percent to 42 percent lead in the generic rating.
Republican sources said the Condit story is having the same impact on the Democrats’ message that the defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont had on the Republican Party in early June. Mr. Winston, who regularly conducts the New Models poll for House Republicans, said the distraction “is making their message convoluted.”
Democrats dispute that the Condit affair has detracted from their other issues in legislative battles with President Bush.
“We’re doing just fine,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. “We have the environment. We have Social Security. We have education, and we’re doing splendidly on all of the above. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I’d come to the conclusion that I’d rather be Mr. Bush than Mr. Condit.”
A senior House Democratic leadership aide said Democrats’ favorability is strong, citing a Pew Research poll released yesterday that showed Democratic approval at 58 percent to 34 percent and Republicans at 48 percent to 42 percent.
The aide said the Condit scandal “is a drag on Congress” as a whole and that most of the public does not associate Mr. Condit with the Democratic Party.
The same Pew poll showed that 65 percent of respondents knew nothing about Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, said the Condit story is drowning out both parties’ messages. But he said the scandal hurts Democrats more because Republicans “have the president, who can get a laser shot out when he wants.”
Mr. Winston, the Republican pollster, cited other distractions for Democrats.
“Minority Leader [Richard A.] Gephardt spent two days explaining that he really wasn’t for raising taxes, despite a Des Moines Register report over the weekend that said he favored raising taxes,” Mr. Winston said in his memo.
Mr. Gephardt, of Missouri, who is considering a presidential bid in 2004, told an audience in Iowa that Democrats “did the right thing” by raising taxes under President Clinton in 1993. His office later said congressional Democrats had no intention of raising taxes again.
The polling found that respondents trust Republicans over Democrats — 45 percent to 41 percent — on the economy. It is the GOP’s biggest lead on that topic in two years of New Models polling, and Mr. Winston attributed it to the enactment of a $1.35 trillion tax cut this summer.
Republicans also improved on the issue of energy, largely by promoting Mr. Bush’s national energy policy. The GOP has gained eight points on energy since the last survey but still trails the Democrats on the issue, 44 percent to 37 percent.
Despite the GOP’s gains on energy and the economy, the poll also held worrisome news for Republican lawmakers. Mr. Winston said the GOP’s gender gap “is at a record high” — women support congressional Democrats by 16 percentage points over Republicans, while the GOP leads among men by 12 percentage points.
“To reverse that trend, we need a sustained focus on education,” Mr. Winston said.