WASHINGTON – Republican leaders, closing ranks around House Speaker Dennis Hastert, have settled on a strategy of trying to move quickly beyond the congressional page scandal and turn the political conversation to such issues as terrorism, tax cuts and a growing economy in the final four weeks before Election Day.

They face a tough challenge, as polls show a growing number of Americans inclined to vote Democratic on Nov. 7 and most people surveyed this week suspecting a “cover-up” in the House’s handling of the controversy involving lewd electronic messages sent by former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., to underage pages.

But with an explosive story erupting a month before an election in which control of Congress is at stake, Republicans have few options. Party leaders have concluded their best hope is to present a united front and change the subject, rather than forcing out Hastert or other leaders.

The strategy is not without risk, and it could be upended by any more damaging revelations. But for now, President Bush is planning to stand alongside Hastert, the Illinois Republican, in Chicago on Thursday at a fundraiser for the congressional campaigns of State Sen. Peter Roskam and David McSweeney. Roskam, who faces Democrat Tammy Duckworth, and McSweeney, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean, say they “have no problem” appearing with Hastert and believe the campaign will quickly turn to matters they consider more pressing than a Washington scandal.

Both Bush and Hastert seized on the newest federal economic report Friday, which showed a relatively sluggish increase of 51,000 jobs last month. Claiming credit for their party’s tax cuts in the creation of 6.6 million jobs since summer 2003.

The party is making its commitment to tax cuts – and purported Democratic designs for raising taxes – a central theme of its midterm campaign.

After a week in which Republican Party leaders often seemed to be contradicting and accusing each other, the new strategy of unity was apparent everywhere Friday.

Bush, who kept a certain distance from the House leader in the first few days after reports of Foley’s sexually explicit communications with a teenage male page, finally has reaffirmed his support for Hastert’s continuing service while investigations are conducted.

The White House and GOP leaders hope Hastert’s acceptance of responsibility for the scandal Thursday, combined with the launch of several investigations likely to be concluded after Election Day, marks “a turning point” in what had become a perilous episode for the party.

Amid some calls for Hastert’s resignation as speaker, Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, flatly predicted that Hastert still will be speaker on Election Day – and that his party will succeed, if narrowly, in stemming a Democratic bid for House control.

“He has done what a leader should do to take responsibility,” Mehlman said. “It is being full investigated. Denny Hastert is a man of his word. The notion that Denny Hastert is going around covering things up, I don’t think people will buy it. That’s not who he is.”

Yet two-thirds of Americans surveyed this week by Time magazine who said they are aware of the Foley scandal said they see a cover-up in the House’s handling of the matter. The survey of 1,002 adults also found 54 percent saying they are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress and 39 percent a Republican – a margin of advantage for the Democratic Party that is 11 points higher than what Time’s survey found in June.

The impression of a cover-up may be bolstered by the fact that a former longtime aide to Foley, Kirk Fordham, said he had alerted the speaker’s office to a problem with Foley more than two years ago, and that Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., said he personally told Hastert of a problem months ago, which Hastert maintains he does not recall.

“The incident itself is very sad and may well be criminal, but the real issue is the cover-up,” said Doug Schoen, a pollster who has served former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats. “For the Republicans not to take responsibility in a meaningful way is, to me, tantamount to accepting behavior that is clearly inappropriate or worse.”

Mehlman maintains that Hastert held Foley accountable as he learned of Foley’s emails last week.

“Ethical responsibility is critical to the American people,” Mehlman said, “and what the American people are going to see when they look at this is that the moment the leaders of Congress looked at this, they did something that hasn’t been done for 30 years. They told a member of Congress, “Either you are out of here or we are going to push you out of here.”‘

Yet Democrats see a potent new weapon in the scandal as Republicans rally around a House speaker embroiled in questions of a cover-up.

Democrat Dan Seals, challenging Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., demanded on Friday that Kirk resign his House leadership post as a majority whip if he continues to support Hastert’s speakership.

“If Kirk is not willing to call into question the speaker’s leadership, then we need to call into question his leadership,” Seals said at a news conference outside Kirk’s office in Northbrook. “There is a moral test here, and Rep. Kirk is failing it. He is placing the protection of the Republican leadership over the protection of teenage pages working in Congress.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., renewed his call Friday for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., to resign as chairman of the House Page Board because he had been told months before of an e-mail Foley wrote to a page.

“It has been a week since this scandal broke,” Durbin said, “and Congressman Shimkus still doesn’t get it. It is not a House scandal or a Republican scandal – it is a national disgrace.”

As Democrats attempt to keep elections focused on the war in Iraq – and now a lurid new scandal questioning the responsibility of the Republican House leadership – the GOP is attempting to refocus public attention on its commitment to tax cuts and national security.

“I predict in 10 days we’ll be talking about something completely different,” said Roskam, suggesting that the Foley matter is “perceived as an inside-the-Beltway scandal that is concerning but isn’t driving the conversation. . . . We’re just running our race, talking about taxes, immigration, the things we want to be talking about.”

Both Bush and Hastert readily seized on the newest employment report of the federal government – with unemployment down to 4.6 percent and 51,000 new jobs created in September – as signs that their party’s tax-cutting policies are working.

“One sure way to hurt this economy is to take money out of the pockets of consumers, or small business owners, and send it to Washington, D.C.,” the president said at a Federal Express facility. He plans to deliver a speech on the economy in Washington on Wednesday.

The Democratic Party decried the relatively anemic growth in jobs as “a heckuva job report.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.