VIRGINIA BEACH, Oct. 7 — As word of Representative Mark Foley’s sexually explicit e-mail messages to former pages spread last week, Republican strategists worried — and Democrats hoped — that the sordid nature of the scandal would discourage conservative Christians from going to the polls.
But in dozens of interviews here in southeastern Virginia, a conservative Christian stronghold that is a battleground in races for the House and Senate, many said the episode only reinforced their reasons to vote for their two Republican incumbents in neck-and-neck re-election fights, Representative Thelma Drake and Senator George Allen.
“This is Foley’s lifestyle,” said Ron Gwaltney, a home builder, as he waited with his family outside a Christian rock concert last Thursday in Norfolk. “He tried to keep it quiet from his family and his voters. He is responsible for what he did. He is paying a price for what he did. I am not sure how much farther it needs to go.”
The Democratic Party is “the party that is tolerant of, maybe more so than Republicans, that lifestyle,” Mr. Gwaltney said, referring to homosexuality.
Most of the evangelical Christians interviewed said that so far they saw Mr. Foley’s behavior as a matter of personal morality, not institutional dysfunction.
All said the question of broader responsibility had quickly devolved into a storm of partisan charges and countercharges. And all insisted the episode would have little impact on their intentions to vote.
It is too soon to tell if the scandal will affect the turnout of evangelical Christians, who make up about a quarter of the electorate and more than a third of Republican voters. Some of President Bush’s political advisers have said that pre-election reports in 2000 that Mr. Bush was once arrested for drunken driving depressed turnout among conservative Christians, nearly costing him the White House.
Pollsters and conservative leaders have said for months that grass-roots evangelicals were demoralized by what they felt was the Republicans’ failure to live up to their talk about social issues — to say nothing of the economy, the Iraq war and other issues that weigh more broadly across the electorate. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed a steep drop in conservative Christian support for Republicans, albeit without a corresponding gain for the Democrats.
Some in the crowd waiting outside the concert, by the evangelical group MercyMe, said the revelations about Mr. Foley, Republican of Florida, had redoubled their previous concerns about the Republican Party.
“The Republicans need to tighten up their ship,” said Wade Crane, a sign maker from Virginia Beach who said he usually voted Republican but had soured on the party in the last several months. “They need to stop covering themselves, using their power to protect themselves.”
Charles W. Dunn, dean of the school of government at Regent University, founded here by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, said that so many conservative Christians were already in a funk about the party that “the Foley issue just opens up the potential floodgate for losses.” The tawdry accusations, Mr. Dunn said, “give life” to the charges of Republican corruption that had been merely “latent” in the minds of many voters.
But as far as culpability in the Foley case, Mr. Dunn said, House Republicans may benefit from the evangelical conception of sin. Where liberals tend to think of collective responsibility, conservative Christians focus on personal morality. “The conservative Christian audience or base has this acute moral lens through which they look at this, and it is very personal,” Mr. Dunn said. “This is Foley’s personal sin.”
To a person, those interviewed said that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois should resign if he knew of the most serious claims against Mr. Foley and failed to stop him. They said the degree of Mr. Hastert’s responsibility remained to be seen. Many said the issue had not changed their view of Congress because, in their opinion, it could not sink any lower.
But all also noted that the swift Democratic efforts to broaden the scandal to Mr. Hastert and other Republicans had added more than a whiff of partisanship to the stink of the scandal.
As the details were emerging last Tuesday, for example, Phil Kellam, the Democrat challenging Ms. Drake, called on her to demand Mr. Hastert’s immediate resignation. In a statement, Mr. Kellam said the House Republican leaders’ “lack of attention” was “perhaps more shocking” than what Mr. Foley had done.
Drew Lankford, a spokesman for Mr. Kellam, said the attacks on Ms. Drake had “painted her into a corner” because she was unwilling to denounce Mr. Hastert. Ms. Drake has said she will wait for a thorough investigation into what Mr. Hastert knew. (The matter has come up less in the Senate race between Mr. Allen and Jim Webb, the Democrat.)
Brian Courtney, a Republican-leaning sales manager attending the concert, said the Foley affair had led to “the kind of mudslinging one would expect to see at an election time like this.” He added that he was paying closer attention to the “values and character” of the candidates, and that he would probably vote Republican again.
Republicans have put up a vigorous defense, mainly through conservative allies and on talk radio. An e-mail message to talk-radio hosts from the Republican Party last week asked, “How would Democrats react if one of their own had a sexual relationship with an intern, was found out, then lied to a grand jury in an attempt to cover it up?”
Rush Limbaugh devoted much of his airtime to the Democrats’ defense of President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sean Hannity focused on former Representative Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat who in 1983 admitted having sex with a teenage male page, won re-election and served several more terms with the support of his colleagues.
Still, many conservative churchgoers said that what stood out for them was not the politics but the individual sin. “It is not going to affect my vote because I don’t live in Florida,” said Scott O’Connell, a mechanical engineer who described himself as a fundamentalist. “But there is a bigger moral issue which I would say is the prism I view this through: I do not believe in homosexuality.”
David Thomas, a father taking his family to the concert, said that he, too, was leaning toward voting Republican and that the scandal only reinforced his conservative Christian convictions. “That is the problem we have in society,” Mr. Thomas said. “Nobody polices anybody. Everybody has a ‘right’ to do whatever.”
In an interview on Friday, Pastor Anne Gimenez of the 15,000-member Rock Church here said the scandal “doesn’t change the issues we are voting on,” like abortion, public expression of religion and same-sex marriage.
The church has been actively registering parishioners and reminding them to vote.
“Every Sunday already,” Ms. Gimenez said.