GOP may dump DeLay if troubles grow

Every day brings more bad political news for embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
A poll last weekend showed his home district support has dropped into a danger zone. Though national surveys cast doubt on the Republican strategy in the Terri Schiavo case, he continued to denounce judicial decisions. Vice President Dick Cheney and some other top Republicans pointedly differed with his comments.
News stories show more questions of questionable funding of his travel and large payments from his political committees to his wife and daughter. More fellow GOP lawmakers are beginning to talk ominously -- though anonymously -- of him as a political liability.
It seems to be following a familiar pattern. In the past, attacks on such controversial figures as former Speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich eventually gained so much momentum that the target was unable to survive, though the timing and cause of the denouement were unexpected.
DeLay still benefits from something neither Wright nor Gingrich had: strong support from the troops, who give him much of the credit for GOP political and financial success. The question is whether it will last.
In the case of Wright, his heavy-handed manner of running the House and his inability to establish close ties with colleagues left him weakened when Republicans raised ethics challenges.
He abruptly quit his seat and his speaker's job in 1989 rather than fight GOP accusations that he evaded House rules on accepting outside income.
Gingrich, who led the 1994 GOP House takeover, suffered from the failure of his tactics against Democrats, acceptance of a $4.5 million book deal advance and charges he used tax-exempt funds for political purposes.
But colleagues forced him out after the unexpected Republican loss of House seats in a 1998 campaign in which he sought unsuccessfully to turn President Bill Clinton's personal indiscretions against the Democratic Party.
Both Wright and Gingrich blamed the poisonous partisan climate in the House. But neither had the deep-seated support in his own party to withstand the criticism of rivals and the concerns of colleagues they might suffer from their leader's problems.
DeLay benefits from helping to elect fellow Republicans, reapportion districts to bolster GOP members and raise campaign funds. He has been a key figure in pushing the GOP's conservative agenda.
But while his institutional support has sustained the Texas Republican so far, there are signs it is beginning to weaken.
A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal said DeLay's ethical transgressions "sooner or later will sweep him out." Last week's National Journal poll of "political insiders" in both parties showed Republicans split on whether DeLay is a liability or an asset. Virtually every Democrat said he is now a GOP liability.
Weakening support was also evident in a survey commissioned by the Houston Chronicle in DeLay's suburban district. Taken by pollster John Zogby, whose work for candidates in both parties included DeLay's 2002 opponent, it showed that more people said they would vote now against DeLay than for him.
That follows last November's election in which the congressman received 55 percent, down from 63 percent in a somewhat different district two years earlier. It's too early to say whether the Democrats will come up with a candidate next year who can threaten DeLay at the polls, given the district's Republican majority.
Bigger threats may well be the investigations into how he and his top aides raised and spent campaign funds and the prospect of GOP setbacks in pushing the Bush agenda this year.
Republicans are unlikely to lose control of the House next year, despite a historic pattern of losses in an administration's sixth year. That's at least partly due to the way they've been able to draw districts in key states, including Texas.
But if they do lose the House, or even a good deal of their majority, the instinct of self-preservation might displace the current GOP inclination to stand by its man.
X Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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