Race To Replace DeLay Up In Air

Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay waits to speak during a news conference after announcing his decision to abandoned his bid to remain as House majority leader Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006 in Sugar Land, Texas.
In the race to replace scandal-scarred Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader, one contender claims 120 votes, another boasts 90 and the third says he has about 50.

They can't all be right, since the totals claimed by Republican Reps. Roy Blunt, John Boehner and John Shadegg far exceed the 232 lawmakers eligible to vote when the rank and file selects a new leader for an era of political peril.

The exaggeration is understandable in advance of balloting set for Thursday.

"We're going to have the first significant leadership election since 1998," says New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, recalling the year Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down following charges of unethical conduct and unexpected election-year losses.

Reynolds, who is running the party's 2006 House campaign, says all Republicans share a common view regardless of how the leadership race turns out: "I think they know we have the wind to our face" in the run-up to the November elections.

President Bush's poor poll showing accounts for part of that, but the GOP-controlled Congress has more trouble. A drumbeat of scandal — California Rep. Randy Cunningham's resignation after pleading guilty to bribe-taking, DeLay's indictment on campaign charges in Texas — reached a crescendo when lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in a congressional corruption probe.

DeLay, with close ties to Abramoff, abandoned his efforts to hold onto power.

In a race that will be won on personal relationships and persuasiveness rather than public campaigning, each of the rivals claim to be the best qualified to revive Republican spirits and fortunes.

Blunt, the acknowledged front-runner, is from Missouri, Boehner from Ohio and Shadegg from Arizona. All three are conservatives and 56 years old. And all no doubt have an eye on succeeding Speaker Dennis Hastert, who has announced that the next term will be his last.

At the same time, all three have raised millions in recent years from special interests as well as individuals, and Democrats will be looking for ammunition to use in the 2006 campaigns.

Blunt was beginning only his second term in Congress when DeLay tapped him in 1998 to be chief deputy whip.

Seven years later, the Missouri lawmaker stepped in as acting majority leader when DeLay was indicted last fall. It was a rocky transition.

Republicans struggled to pass a sweeping deficit-reduction bill, and a measure to cut spending across hundreds of social programs went down to embarrassing defeat.

Both measures ultimately passed the House, and Blunt claimed bragging rights.