Voters in DeLay's district consider their options

The embattled former House leader faces the electorate Tuesday for the first time since his indictment last year.

Even with the criminal indictments, the corruption investigations, and the congressional reprimands, US Rep. Tom DeLay (R) appears poised to win his party's nomination in the primary on Tuesday - though the margin could be smaller than he is used to and portend trouble in the general election.

By most accounts, the former House majority leader still has broad support in Texas' 22nd Congressional District, which is largely Republican, but this may be the year he is the most vulnerable - especially if there is any more negative publicity before November.

Mr. DeLay was indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas, in September on state campaign-finance violations. He is now also being scrutinized for ties to longtime political associate Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in January.

Besides battling personal scandals, DeLay could also be facing in November his first formidable challenger in years - former Rep. Nick Lampson (D), who lost his seat during the 2003 Texas redistricting plan spearheaded by DeLay. Mr. Lampson moved to Sugar Land, Texas, specifically to take on DeLay, and is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.

"DeLay will certainly win on Tuesday. But the real question is, does he win impressively, or does he win in an ambiguous sort of way that encourages Lampson and the people contributing to him to pour money into the race?" says Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Because DeLay is in a precarious position, say political analysts, he has been spending a lot more time and money campaigning in his district this time around.

During the last election, DeLay was still "The Hammer," the powerful House majority leader who routinely made policy decisions that benefited his constituents.

"But much of that has been stripped away, and I think the voters know he is not the powerhouse he once was," says Professor Jillson. "Beyond that, he's embarrassed them by drawing adverse attention to Sugar Land and the rest of the district."

A Houston Chronicle poll taken in January found that only half of those who voted for DeLay in 2004 would do so again.

That is what Republican challenger Tom Campbell is counting on. A former general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he is considered to be DeLay's strongest rival in the primary. Others running in the GOP race are Pat Baig, a retired credit manager, and Mike Fjetland, an attorney who is challenging DeLay for the fourth time.

Though Mr. Campbell's political positions are similar to DeLay's - immigration control, smaller government, and tax cuts - he also talks about restoring integrity to the office and lobbying reform.

But he is not overly critical of DeLay. "I believe Mr. DeLay has done a lot of good for this district, but in recent years he has made some poor decisions that have taken the country and the Republican Party in fundamentally the wrong direction," he says.

Mr. Campbell also says he voted for DeLay in 2004, but was uneasy about it. "The feeling I'm getting across the district is that 22 years is long enough. People want to get back to their lives and not have to explain to friends and relatives why Mr. DeLay is their congressman."

But unseating an incumbent is incredibly difficult, say political scientists - and DeLay has been in Congress for 21 years, amassing many supporters. "DeLay's not your average incumbent ... so the rules don't mean much in this election," says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

That Texas' primary comes only nine weeks after candidates file overwhelmingly favors incumbents, says Professor Murray. Some states' primaries are in the summer, giving candidates plenty of time to raise money and gain recognition.

But even if DeLay wins big on Tuesday, that margin of victory will be a poor indicator of his showing in November because Texas typically has a very low voter turnout for primaries, says Murray.

Last summer, the Fort Bend and Harris County Republican parties took the unusual step of approving resolutions supporting DeLay, saying they want to stand with him while he's under attack. (Usually party leaders remain neutral.) They say the reason for his falling support is because there were fewer Republicans in his constituency after redistricting. In 2004, he won with 55 percent of the vote - a smaller margin than in previous elections.

"The national media is ... clueless when it comes to knowledge about Congressional District 22 and its political makeup," says Eric Thode, Fort Bend County Republican chairman. "Tom DeLay has been extremely attentive to the needs of District 22 since 1984. He had done a fine job for Texas and continues to do a fine job for us. So the question is not whether he wins, but how big he wins."

However, DeLay could be on trial in the state case before the general election.

"He will have to decide if he wants to put all his energy and resources into surviving his indictment or campaign in the face of it," says Jillson. "There is a better than 50-50 chance that he won't even be on the ballot in November."

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