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Bush Campaigns for Philanderer

LA PLUME, Pa.- So it has come to this: Nineteen days before the midterm elections, President Bush flew here to champion the reelection of a congressman who last year settled a $5.5 million lawsuit alleging that he beat his mistress during a five-year affair. “I’m pleased to be here with Don Sherwood,” a smiling president told the congressman’s loyal but dispirited supporters at a luncheon fundraiser Thursday. “He has got a record of accomplishment.”

Quite a record. While representing the good people of the 10th District, the married congressman shacked up in Washington with a Peruvian immigrant more than three decades his junior. During one assignation in 2004, the woman, who says Sherwood was striking her and trying to strangle her, locked herself in a bathroom and called 911; Sherwood told police he was giving her a back rub.

At a time when Republicans are struggling to motivate religious conservatives to go to the polls next month, it is not clear what benefit the White House found in sending Bush to stump for Sherwood — smack dab in the middle of what Bush, in an official proclamation, dubbed “National Character Counts Week.”

The president encouraged public officials “to observe this week with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs” — but public officials responded with some unusual ceremonies and activities: The House ethics committee is holding hearings on the page sex scandal; the FBI raided buildings as part of a probe involving Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.); and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the eighth person convicted in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, is refusing to vacate his seat in Congress.

On the other hand, while other Republicans proclaim their independence from Bush, Sherwood is one of the few still eager to bask in the president’s faint glow. (Another was Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who, after a summer of racial and religious gaffes, was happy to welcome Bush in Richmond on Thursday evening.) Bush may be at a lowly 35 percent in the polls here, but Sherwood should be so lucky: Only 1 in 5 residents definitely intends to vote for him next month. By Sherwood standards, Bush is still a rock star.

“My family and I are humbled by having our friends support us, especially when one is the leader of this great country,” Sherwood said in introducing Bush.

His wife and adult daughter stood on stage, human shields against scandal. Their discomfort became apparent when Bush, trying to defuse the controversy, praised the letter Carol Sherwood wrote to her husband’s constituents this week about the “needlessly cruel” decision by his Democratic opponent to run an ad about the mistress’s allegations. “I was deeply moved by her words,” he said, while some in the dead-silent audience noticed an agonized look on daughter Maria Sherwood’s face.

Bush was careful to avoid the usual lines about family and conservative values; he also skipped the usual first-name-only reference that would indicate that “Don” is a buddy. Onstage, he gave Sherwood the obligatory handshake and photograph but quickly moved to stand with the female Sherwoods.

The president otherwise kept his talk in the comfortable realm of terrorists and taxes. “As this campaign gets closer to the stretch, you will hear a lot of rhetoric and a lot of partisan charges coming from the other side,” Bush warned. “Their goal is to distract you.”

The nature of the accuser’s allegations — she said Sherwood gave her “facial lacerations, bruises about the head, neck and other portions of her body, head injury, injuries to her teeth, mouth and gums, back and neck strain, injuries to her scalp” — makes it more than a distraction. Sherwood continues to deny abuse after reaching the secret settlement.

Still, the loyal listeners wanted to believe Bush — and not the polls that show Sherwood as a goner, down by 15 points. “It all depends on how forgiving the constituents are,” said Harry Strausser III, whose name tag bore the red star of the big donors at the $350-a-head lunch. As for Bush’s elliptical reference to the scandal, “given the fact that the unfortunate situation occurred, you can’t ignore it.”

His father, Harry Jr., added, wistfully: “He’s done a lot while in Congress. It’s an unfortunate situation, the Washington problem with the woman.”

There weren’t quite enough attendees to fill the 25 tables. Campaign volunteers, working to minimize reporters’ contact with the donors, guarded the media in a roped-off pen in the rear of the room, even escorting them to and from the restroom. When the event ended, the Secret Service joined volunteers in attempting, unsuccessfully, to restrain reporters behind ropes until the attendees left.

Such precautions — Thursday’s whole event, in fact — would have been unnecessary if Sherwood, a car dealer and conservative Republican, had avoided that “Washington problem with the woman,” as Strausser tactfully put it. But the rural, reliably GOP voters began to sour on Sherwood with news of the lawsuit; the mood worsened when the Mark Foley page scandal renewed questions of sexual misconduct among lawmakers.

“It’s the perfect storm of events,” exulted Chris Carney, Sherwood’s Democratic opponent. The Penn State professor and naval reservist is enjoying Bush’s “last-ditch” effort to rescue the congressman. Working a lunchtime crowd at a diner not far from the Sherwood event, the Democrat didn’t have to work hard to win support, even from Republicans.

“I’m leaning towards him,” Diane Kosar said after Carney visited her booth. Opposed to abortion and eager for a crackdown on illegal immigrants, she has voted for Sherwood in the past.

But this time, even the president can’t save him. “Sherwood’s been okay,” Kosar said, “but as far as what he did with the young girl, that was a bad thing.”

From Kansas City.com: LA PLUME, Pa. – He said she was “a casual acquaintance.” She said they were extra-marital lovers, but told police that he tried to choke her. His wife says she forgives him. So does President Bush.

In fact, Bush traveled to northeastern Pennsylvania Thursday to help the wayward husband, Republican Rep. Don Sherwood, [pictured] keep his seat in Congress. Perhaps it’s a measure of the Republicans’ plight that the president would throw his prestige behind a candidate whose marital misbehavior conjures memories of Bill Clinton.

Sherwood’s five-year fling with a woman half his age has all the elements of a bad soap opera, but voter reaction to his performance could help decide whether Republicans keep control of the House of Representatives. Polls show Sherwood trailing Democratic challenger Chris Carney in a district that had been considered a lock for the GOP.

“It looks like he’s in pretty serious trouble,” said Jonathan Williamson, chairman of the political science department at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. “If they didn’t need the seat so much, the national Republicans would cut Sherwood loose. This may be one of the firewalls – they have to have this one, even though they’re not all that thrilled with their guy.”

Bush gave Sherwood his wholehearted endorsement as he helped the candidate raise more than $300,000 at a fundraiser at Keystone College. The president addressed Sherwood’s adultery head-on by praising the candidate’s wife, Carol, for standing by him.

In a letter to voters last weekend, Carol Sherwood accused Carney of exploiting her family’s trauma by casting the congressional election as a referendum on moral values.

“Chris Carney might be trying to make himself look squeaky clean, but we have all made mistakes we regret over the years,” she wrote. “I am certainly not condoning the mistake Don made, but I’m not going to dwell on it, either.”

Bush said he was “deeply moved” by her comments.

“Carol’s letter shows what a caring and courageous woman she is,” he said as the Sherwoods and one of the couple’s three daughters looked on.

The congressman’s marital misdeeds have become a frequent topic of discussion in his conservative, rural district, where the mountains are now covered with trees in shades of yellow, orange and red. Sherwood’s problems started in September 2004, when Cynthia Ore called police to the congressman’s Capitol Hill apartment claiming that he’d choked her for no apparent reason.

She was 29 at the time; he was 63.

Sherwood was never charged, and the matter attracted little attention until the following spring, when Ore threatened legal action and provided details of a relationship that Sherwood had initially denied. The two met in 1999 at a gathering for young Republicans.

“We had such good chemistry,” Ore told the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. “I saw Don as a small-town all-American. He has that pink, rosy skin. When I first met him, he had those big glasses.”

Sherwood, a wealthy car dealer, settled Ore’s $5.5 million civil suit for an undisclosed sum, but his indiscretion continues to haunt him. Carney’s efforts to exploit the scandal and the furor over former Rep. Mark Foley’s sexually explicit Internet messages to congressional pages have added fuel to the issue.

Sherwood has all but pleaded for voters to forgive him.

“I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife, Carol, and our daughters. As a family, we’ve worked through this,” he said in one of his television ads. “Should you forgive me, you can count on me to continue to fight for you and your family.”

But some Republicans aren’t ready to forget or forgive. Former Sherwood supporter Joseph Lech of Tunkhannock, Pa., Sherwood’s hometown, vented his anger in an ad for Carney.

“This incident with Don Sherwood just cuts right at the core values of our district. I’ve spoken to my daughter about that incident, and she’s disgusted by it,” Lech says in the ad. “I love my daughter tremendously. How can I tell her that I support Don Sherwood and feel good about myself?”

Carney’s efforts to benefit from his opponent’s failings mirror Bush’s references to Clinton’s infidelity during the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush presented himself as a morally upright alternative to the outgoing president by repeatedly assuring voters that he would “uphold the dignity of the office.”

Sherwood admittedly fell short of Bush’s pledge, but White House spokesman Tony Snow noted the congressman’s contrition in explaining the president’s decision to campaign for him.

“Mr. Sherwood has certainly admitted to what has gone on, and the president believes that we’re all sinners, we all seek forgiveness,” Snow said last week.

Pressed on the issue again Thursday, Snow seemed eager to change the topic. He defended the president’s visit, then said: “I’m not going to go any further.”

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