GOP Contest Guided by Lessons of Battles Past

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

When the House speaker's job opened up in 1998, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) -- a telegenic policy intellectual from the nation's most populous state -- seemed like a logical candidate. Cox certainly thought so. He brooded over his options and mused about a possible run on CNN.

But while Cox was in the studio, J. Dennis Hastert was winning the cloakroom. With powerful backing from Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Hastert -- a decidedly untelegenic, nuts-and-bolts pol from small-town Illinois -- was working the phones, cutting deals and forming alliances. Within hours, he locked down the most powerful job in Congress.

DeLay's decision to give up the majority leader's post for good has thrown the House into its first leadership race since 1998, and the lessons of the Hastert episode still echo. Congressional leadership contests, in which politicians are both the candidates and the voters, are a special kind of art form.

Though hundreds of the 435 House members probably have the ambition to lead the chamber, only a few have the right combination of personal relationships, tactical smarts and mettle to make it happen. Those who have what it takes routinely jump the line over much more senior colleagues in a way that was uncommon in earlier eras.

The first rule of leadership races, several lawmakers said, is that fortune favors the bold. Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the acting majority leader, barely waited for the ink to dry on DeLay's farewell letter earlier this month before jumping into the race for the second-ranking job.

A quick start allows the aspirants to start locking up votes, cutting deals and discouraging others from running, as Hastert did in his 1998 triumph. It also gives them a head start in digging up unfavorable information on the their opponents, which sources said both the Blunt and Boehner camps are doing aggressively.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) did not get in early but is considering a bid -- hoping he can shake up the race by casting himself as a reform-minded alternative to Blunt and Boehner, both of whom have extensive ties to lobbyists.

The quick-start strategy appears to be working best for Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), a conservative from Richmond who was the first to enter the race for majority whip -- the third-ranking GOP post, with responsibility for counting votes and keeping members happy. Cantor, who arrived in the House just five years ago, had a detailed plan in place long before DeLay stepped aside, and he implemented it immediately. Three potential rivals were still deliberating, to their apparent detriment.

"There are a lot of people in leadership just because they were the first in," said former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who ran Newt Gingrich's first leadership-election bid in 1989.

But the quick entrance must be done with tact, lawmakers said, in this case by praising DeLay's tenure, informing Hastert and emphasizing publicly that the campaign is about saving the GOP caucus, not satisfying personal ambitions.

The most important factor in leadership races is that the logic of general elections -- in which candidates often vie to claim the center -- does not apply. The GOP conference is dominated by antiabortion, anti-gay-rights, pro-tax-cuts and pro-military members, who demand the same of their leaders. So the 30 or so moderate Republicans in the caucus need not apply in most cases.

In the opening hours of the race for majority leader, Boehner and Blunt argued over who is the more purebred conservative. Blunt's allies whispered about Boehner's prominent role in passing the No Child Left Behind Act, which many conservatives deride for its expansion of the federal role in local education and its high price tag. Sensitive to this charge, Boehner told members he was more committed than the current leaders to ending pork-barrel spending.

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