WASHINGTON -- The big political question for Republicans nowadays is whether they will take a hit in the midterm elections for the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
As this is written, the evidence was scant that it will have very much of an impact, if any, on how Americans will vote nearly 10 months from now. But there is no doubt that the whole sordid mess is dramatically changing the House GOP's leadership lineup, its reform agenda and the way that lobbying is done in this town.
As things stand now, there will be a new House Republican leader to take Tom DeLay's place permanently, as he battles an indictment on campaign money-laundering charges, and a new House GOP whip, a pivotal political post in the party's hierarchy.
At the same time, House Speaker Dennis Hastert is planning to bring forth some of the toughest House ethics rules in modern memory to rein in the too-often cozy relationship between members of Congress, lobbyists and their money. That will be followed by legislation to toughen the laws governing lobbying, reporting requirements, penalties and enforcement.
The word has come down from Hastert that this scandal is going to be nuked by the Republican leadership before it further undermines the public confidence in the integrity of the GOP-run Congress. DeLay's decision to step down from the leadership was the first step in that process.
Party leaders expect there could be further repercussions if Abramoff points fingers at members of Congress who received campaign funding from him or his associates, and subsequently did favors for his clients. Could that have a rippling effect throughout the party in the fall elections? GOP campaign strategists don't think so.
"The bottom line is that the only people who potentially can be harmed by this are only those who are actually found guilty," said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee's communications director.
"I don't know any member of Congress who lost because of something another member did or did not do," Forti told me.
Still, public cynicism about Congress' honesty and ethics is running high in the wake of Abramoff's guilty pleas on charges of tax evasion, fraud and corruption charges. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed this week that 58 percent now think the case is "evidence of widespread corruption in Washington," versus 34 percent who say it is "limited to a few corrupt individuals."
Notably, though, few Americans blame just Republicans for the scandal.
Nearly three-fourths say "there isn't much difference between (the two parties) when it comes to ethics and honesty."
There are a slew of generic polls, however, that find more Americans saying they will vote Democratic this year, but generic polls, which are not based on actual candidates, are notoriously inaccurate. The same polls projected similar results in 2004 and 2002 when in fact Republicans made gains in Congress.
Nevertheless, veteran election pollsters have sent notes of warning to both parties in the unfolding scandal.
"Generic polls are not predictive at all at this point, but it's a good indicator of the general mood of the country at this point," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
"Voters will make distinctions about their own representatives and senators, regarding their own actions in connection with Mr. Abramoff, but the problem is the image of Congress which is not healthy at the moment and which is likely to take another Democratic hit," he said.
Democrats are vulnerable on this score, too. "The Democrats' tendency to portray the Republican Congress as the most corrupt in years could backfire on them because clearly that opens the door to Democrats who have received money from Abramoff," independent pollster John Zogby told me. But most scandals are not born and do not grow in a political vacuum.
There are always competing issues and factors and this is an election year when there are a lot of them and big ones, too. Pollsters I have talked to in the past week tell me that Iraq will have a much bigger impact on how people vote in November, along with the U.S. economy, gas prices and even the stock market.
In other words, whatever happens in the lobbying scandal, it will have to compete with some potential developments this year on several Republican-friendly fronts: The likelihood of troop withdrawals from Iraq as the Iraqi army grows in strength, the Fed's expected decision sometime soon to halt the climb in interest rates, a bull rally in the stock market that is boosting pension funds and a job-producing economy that is expected to grow by 3.5 percent this year.
Meanwhile, the first big political battle of the year does not bode well for the Democrats' future prospects. They came out this week with both guns blazing against Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court.
But the Post-ABC poll showed that 53 percent of Americans believe the Senate should confirm him, 27 said he should not and 20 percent have no opinion. Not an auspicious start for the Democrats and maybe an omen of how the 2006 elections could turn out.