Allies and friends of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) have concluded that public attention to his ethics is unlikely to abate for months to come, and they plan to try to preserve his power by launching an aggressive media strategy and calling in favors from prominent conservative leaders, according to Republicans participating in the strategy sessions.
The Republicans said the strategy combines leaks from DeLay allies about questionable Democratic trips and financial matters; denunciations of unfavorable news stories as biased, orchestrated rehashes; and swift, organized responses to journalists' inquiries.
The resistance was launched two weeks ago when DeLay flew back to Washington from Texas during Easter recess to speak to a group of about 30 conservative leaders who had gathered in the conference room of the Family Research Council for a call to arms on his behalf.
Officials working with DeLay said he is trying to lock in support by sowing the message that an attack on him is an attack on the conservative movement, and that taking him out would be the Democrats' first step toward regaining control of the House and Senate. These officials said they believe the attacks are part of a strategy by Democrats, aided by watchdog groups funded by liberals, to use the ethics process to try to regain power.
At the same time, DeLay is continuing his high-decibel comments -- including his warning last week about "a judiciary run amok" -- on the theory that he is going to remain himself and not bend to the opposition, friends say.
The stakes are enormous for Republicans, who control both houses of Congress but are confronting the possibility that DeLay's woes could distract from the party's agenda, including the effort to build public support for adding personal accounts to Social Security.
DeLay was once considered unassailable because of his strong hold over House members. But Democrats are now talking about funding a challenger in his suburban Houston district, where he got 55 percent of the vote in November, behind President Bush's 65 percent. And he has been criticized in two blue-chip conservative forums: the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times column of David Brooks.
When Bush was asked Friday about DeLay's comments that judges are out of control and should be held accountable, the president replied that he believes in "an independent judiciary." He said nothing about DeLay.
House Democrats said they plan to make "abuse of power" their focus this week, keyed to a scheduled Wednesday meeting of the ethics committee, which has been unable to organize because of Democratic opposition to rule changes pushed through by the Republican majority.
According to party sources, top Republican aides now have a daily conference call in which they trade intelligence about upcoming DeLay stories so they can form a united front in responding.
DeLay staff members are linking with outside lawyers -- including Barbara Comstock, former research director of the Republican National Committee -- to form what is essentially a campaign organization aimed at minimizing damage to DeLay and building support despite what they believe will be a continuing torrent of news stories about his travel, fundraising and dealings with lobbyists.
One Republican familiar with the strategy, who asked not to be identified in order to be more candid, described the message as "Clintonian" in that it emphasized the idea that "there's no news, and they're out to get us" -- with the addition that "liberal media, liberal Democrats" are to blame.
Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), the chief deputy whip, said he told the conservative leaders at the Easter-time meeting that what is really going on is that Democrats are unwilling "to accept the Republican majority in Congress, and see this majority leader as one that they can't beat at the polls and now have taken to a planned attack of personal destruction."
"He is taking arrows for all of us, given the intentions of the other side," Cantor said. "It is not stopping at Tom DeLay, and Tom DeLay is not the issue. It is much larger than that, and it's about the majority that they're after. They didn't win in November and in fact had a setback. So it is do or die for them."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a prominent social conservative, said his mission is to remind people that DeLay is a large reason that Congress has a conservative majority. "He is in the cross hairs in large part because of his effectiveness," Perkins said. "It's a typical strategy: Take out the leader, and other people scatter."
The meeting was organized by Perkins; Edwin J. Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation; and David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. Keene said he told the attendees: "If we are a serious movement, we cannot allow one of our own to be attacked."
Keene said the leaders will show their solidarity by announcing this week that they are holding a tribute dinner for DeLay on May 12 at the Capital Hilton, complete with a film "summation of what Tom has done for conservatives." Keene said 1,000 people are expected, and tickets will be about $200.
Becky Norton Dunlop, a Heritage Foundation vice president who was formerly Virginia's secretary of natural resources, attended the meeting. She said charges similar to those that have been made about DeLay could be made about Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
"And yet, these are not happening. Why? Because they're liberals," Dunlop said. "We think that those who are so intent about making charges against Tom DeLay should also take a look at Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and some of the liberal leaders."