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DeLay Will Face Voters' Verdict This Week

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By Sylvia Moreno and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 5, 2006

SUGAR LAND, Tex. -- Larry and Judy Deats live in the heart of Tom DeLay's congressional district and would appear to be part of the Republican faithful that have kept the former House majority leader in office for 22 years.

Mention Ronnie Earle, and Larry accuses the Travis County district attorney, a Democrat who convened the grand jury that indicted DeLay on money-laundering and conspiracy charges, of running a witch hunt. Bring up former vice president Al Gore, who attacked the Bush administration during a recent speech in Saudi Arabia, and Judy says he should be charged with treason.

But for the first time -- with DeLay under criminal indictment, rebuked three times by the House ethics committee and linked to former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to political corruption charges -- the couple is not sure whether their congressman will again get their votes.

"This has been difficult -- probably more so than any election in recent years," Judy Deats, 61, said as she sat in a Mexican restaurant in DeLay's butterfly-shaped suburban Houston district. "We're giving it all a fair shot, but I don't know how I'm going to decide. Maybe prayer."

Said her 63-year-old husband: "I probably won't decide until the night before."

In Tuesday's Republican primary election here, undecided voters such as the Deatses could make the crucial difference for DeLay, whose hold on the seat has never been challenged seriously. But emboldened by DeLay's legal and ethical troubles, three Republicans have stepped up to oppose his renomination.

If DeLay emerges as the party's candidate, the road to reelection will not get any smoother. Former representative Nick Lampson, who has no opponent in the Democratic primary, has been running since last year and, with $1.4 million, has slightly more cash on hand than DeLay, according to the latest campaign finance report. A Houston Chronicle poll in January showed Lampson with a lead over DeLay of eight percentage points.

It will not help DeLay that his district is more Democratic, ironically by his own making. DeLay's legal and ethical entanglements stem from his efforts to redistrict Texas to elect more Republicans to the U.S. House.

Always a strong candidate in his own races, DeLay surrendered GOP voters in the realignment to bolster some other Republican districts. Now, after contending with indictment and departure from the House leadership, he could be facing the loss of the very seat he used to rise to power.

In that same Chronicle poll, 68 percent of respondents said they were undecided on a candidate in the Republican primary, a potentially worrisome sign for DeLay, who enjoys near universal name recognition in the district.

DeLay must secure more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday to avoid an April 11 runoff with the next highest Republican vote-getter. Michael Baselice, a Republican pollster based in Austin, said "the best thing [DeLay] can do to disprove any doubters is to win outright, regardless of the percentage."

DeLay's GOP opponents include Tom Campbell, an environmental attorney and general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President George H.W. Bush; retired schoolteacher and oil industry credit manager Pat Baig; and lawyer Mike Fjetland, who has run against DeLay three times.

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