WASHINGTON – It's hard to see over the pile of dirty political laundry this election.
Drunk driving arrests, a teenage flirtation with witchcraft, bitter divorces, unpaid taxes — it all sounds like material for a police blotter or the parodies on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Yet the personal and professional revelations about some of this year's candidates could yank the spotlight from issues and define a politician.
"The stuff that works is ultimately the stuff that becomes a symbol or a metaphor for the person's deeper character," said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane.
Candidates may be intent about talking about jobs and economic rebound this election year, but they face the prospect that the lasting image with voters is an opponent's ad or a widely viewed YouTube video of remarks about satanic altars, drinking and driving or exaggerated military records.
In Delaware, Republican and tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell has had to answer for comments she made years ago about "dabbling in witchcraft;" for an IRS lien against her property this year for unpaid taxes, which she blamed on a government computer error, and misstatements about her academic record.
Democrats are counting on the steady drumbeat of these disclosures to derail O'Donnell's candidacy. And yet some of O'Donnell's dedicated supporters have shrugged them off, blaming the media.
For some voters, relentless negative news lacks the shock impact of the past. Americans in recent years have been inundated about stories on the marital infidelities of President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the driving infractions of a man who became president, George W. Bush.
Still, no candidate wants the story line to be whether an ex-spouse was threatened or a conviction.
Louisiana Sen. David Vitter has struggled to explain why he let a legislative aide who worked on women's issues keep his job after being charged with attacking his girlfriend. A police report said the incident involved a knife. Democrats hope the episode reminds voters of Vitter's own admission of a "serious sin" in 2007 after his phone number appeared in the records of a Washington prostitution ring.
Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal had to apologize for exaggerating his military record after The New York Times reported that he wrongly said more than once that he served in Vietnam. The Senate nominee's big advantage in public polls has vanished against brash Republican Linda McMahon, a wealthy former wrestling executive who has vowed to spend as much as $50 million of her own money.
In South Carolina, Democrat Alvin Greene is pressing ahead with his long-shot bid for a Senate seat despite being indicted in August on a felony charge of showing pornography to a college student.
In several House races, candidates have had to deal with embarrassing episodes from their past.
• The South Dakota Democratic Party launched a Web site mocking Republican Kristi Noem after reports that she racked up 20 speeding tickets and other traffic violations since 1989, including one ticket for driving 94 mph in a 75 mph zone last February. She apologized, but the issue percolated in a state where former Republican Rep. Bill Janklow was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for a 2003 car crash.
Noem is challenging Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for South Dakota's lone House seat. Herseth Sandlin won a special election in 2004 after Janklow resigned following the crash in which he ran a stop sign and killed a motorcycle rider.
• Massachusetts Republican Jon Golnik was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol after attending an AC/DC concert at Boston's FleetCenter in 2001. He was shirtless and his speech was slurred, the police report said.
Golnik, 45, is a reseller of Boston College merchandise and a former foreign currency trader who is running against Democratic incumbent Niki Tsongas, the wife of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas.
Golnik has acknowledged drinking and driving, but said he hadn't smoked pot. His license was suspended. The marijuana charge was eventually dismissed.
"People have been pretty forgiving," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm not perfect. But I've learned more from my failures, like most of us do."
• Tennessee Republican candidate Scott DesJarlais, a physician, has denied allegations from 2001 divorce filings in which his former wife accused him of being violent and threatening toward her. The filing said he once held a gun to his mouth for three hours.
• A western Massachusetts Republican campaigning on themes of fiscal responsibility with tea party support has had to explain a court-approved personal bankruptcy in 2000 that wiped out $140,000 in unpaid bills and $8,000 in unpaid income taxes. Tom Wesley is a former U.S. Navy pilot who founded and ran an aerospace firm.
• Minnesota Republican Teresa Collett, a University of St. Thomas law professor, posted a Web video to explain her 2006 conviction for drunken driving after the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported the case.
Collett said that at the time of her arrest she was unaware that a prescription drug she was taking for early onset menopause could increase the effects of alcohol. Collett said she mowed graveyards as part of her community service sentence.
• In Georgia and Texas, incumbent Democratic Reps. Sanford Bishop and Eddie Bernice Johnson have been forced to repay charity scholarship funds to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation after acknowledging that they awarded money to family members and other close associates.
Associated Press writer Ben Evans contributed to this report.