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The Pathfinder
New House Whip Eric Cantor Aims to Be the GOP's Out-of-the-Wilderness Guide

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

RICHMOND

They surround Eric Cantor, these Democrats and liberals.

Here at home, there's his live-in mother-in-law with her Sierra Club membership and her baffling habit of hand-washing Ziploc bags -- "I don't know if that's an environment thing," the incoming Republican House whip and conservative bulwark wonders aloud, flashing a hint of a perfect smile. There's his wife, too, a fiscal conservative with her overwhelmingly Democratic family and her pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage views -- "We have a 'mixed marriage,' " Cantor observes.

On Capitol Hill, Cantor is in the minority twice over: He's the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and his party has lost so many seats to the Democrats that he talks of life in the political "wilderness." In those minority-party woods, Cantor searches for a way out, for a way to turn irrelevancy into relevancy.

He talks about creating a new kind of Republican conservative, one less concerned with ideology and more focused on practical solutions, more tech-savvy and less reflexively combative with Democrats, intolerant of ethical lapses and tolerant of new ideas. And especially one who communicates better to the middle class.

"Our message, of late, has been somewhat muddled," he says.

Conservatives, especially the young ones in the House, bunch behind him, following his lead, in part, because he is "a comer." The Capitol loves comers. But the 45-year-old Cantor rises to prominence at a difficult time for Republicans, making his search all the more challenging and urgent.

On his nightstand, Cantor heaps prescriptions for his ailing party: "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," by David Frum, formerly a speechwriter for President Bush; "The Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream," by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. He pores over newspaper columns, he says, seeking wisdom "from the George Wills of the world, the Bill Kristols of the world, the Charles Krauthammers of the world."

"I'm very fixated on trying to determine what went wrong and how we can fix it," he says over toasted cheese sandwiches and tuna melts at a pharmacy diner here.

But the answers aren't easy to find.

He keeps looking.

"Nobody," he says, "is right on the money yet."

A High-Speed Ascent

After the Nov. 4 election -- when Democrats increased their majority in the House by more than 20 seats, their largest advantage since the early '90s -- Cantor called Erik Paulsen.

Paulsen, 43, is one of Cantor's "Young Guns," a group of promising Republican House members and candidates identified as the future of the party by Cantor and his pals, Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California. The nearly 60 sitting members of Congress in the group each pledged to raise $1,000 for each of 20 Republican challengers or candidates for open seats, including Paulsen, who was elected to Congress for the first time in Minnesota.

Cantor was calling to find out how Paulsen did it.

"I had a tax message and I pretty much stuck to that," Paulsen recalls telling Cantor. "It resonated that raising taxes on small businesses and families wasn't going to work."

Cantor tucked the conversation into his evolving political road map, adding another segment to the line he is trying to draw through the trees.

"I'm sensing he's still developing it," Paulsen said of Cantor's map for a Republican return to power.

Cantor had flown to Minnesota to campaign for Paulsen, one of hundreds of trips he has made in the past several years. His staff estimates he has campaigned in 80 to 90 districts, a peripatetic track record that has solidified his power base and earned tons of goodwill for his bid to move up in leadership. Along the way he has earned a reputation as one of the Hill's top money men -- his staff estimates he has raised $60 million for Republican reelection committees and candidates, including about $10 million for presidential contender John McCain.

For all his renown on the Hill, Cantor did not truly catapult into the national consciousness until two things happened within a few months this summer and fall: He played a starring role in the fight over the Wall Street bailout, helping to block the first version of the plan on the grounds that it did not have enough safeguards for taxpayers. That followed the attention he'd gotten when his name surfaced in this summer's vice presidential running mate rumor-fest. For a few days in the pre-Sarah Palin era, he was the buzz choice to join McCain on the Republican ticket. The reaction was generally along the lines of, "Who is this guy?" It seemed very mavericky.

Others gushed. Here was a polished, articulate lawmaker -- every hair in place, attractive on TV! He hailed from a battleground state! Had a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union! Cantor's brief flirtation with the national ticket added velocity to a breathtakingly high-speed ascent that positions him at the forefront of the Republican Party's rehabilitation efforts.

In 2002, just prior to starting his second term, he was named chief deputy whip at the tender age of 39. Those were different times -- the House Republicans weren't searching for power. They had it. Anything seemed possible. That optimism oozes from a framed cartoon from Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that hangs on Cantor's wall. In it, a small group of dogs tries to herd a large group of cats: "I don't know, but I'm still hopeful we can get nine votes." Blunt's inscription says, "A typical day for us!"

On Nov. 19, Cantor became the second-highest-ranking House Republican when he was unanimously elected whip after Blunt stepped down. Some had thought he would challenge Minority Leader John Boehner, who seemed vulnerable. Boehner held on, but Cantor seemed to have all the forward momentum. In a year when Republicans were crashing, four of Cantor's Young Guns had unseated Democrat incumbents and three had won open seats. With each win, he gained a new ally and a new guide to inform his search.

"If you ask me, 'Are these people going to be beholden to you and want to do favors for you since you did it for them?' I'd say, 'Maybe, maybe not,' " Cantor said in an interview. "The much more powerful tool in influencing the direction in which you head, and frankly in gaining support from people . . . is to have the ideas in place and the ability to develop those ideas to apply to the task at hand."

As for the specifics of those ideas, he's still working on those. But he knows he'll focus on the middle class, hoping to bring down gas prices by allowing more offshore oil drilling and trying to stimulate job creation by reducing corporate taxes.

A Family of Opposites

The advice comes in droves now, nuggets that Cantor hopes to piece together into a coherent vision. One day, the former Republican whip Tom DeLay -- the imposing "Hammer" -- is on the phone. Another day it's Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose Contract With America laid out his plans in such great detail when Republicans were surging in the mid-1990s.

"I talk to Newt Gingrich all the time," Cantor says. "There are a lot of issues to be learned from him. They were all about reform."

Gingrich tells him to go on offense, Cantor says, to see their troubles as an opportunity.

"We do that," Cantor says Gingrich is telling him, "by becoming the party of ideas again."

Kay Granger, a Republican congresswoman from Texas, tells him to think of policies through "the prism of a single mother," he says. "What she's worried about, this mom, she's worried about losing her health care if she loses her job," he says. "So the first thing we ought to be addressing is that."

The key is in the packaging. The key is not bogging down that single mom with "broad, macro terms" and ideological chatter, Cantor says he has learned. Give her a specific plan and you win her. He'd like to apply the same concept to transportation, education, job creation, energy policy, the environment. Until now, he says, Republicans have been going about it the wrong way.

"It's been a failure of applying principles to solutions," Cantor says. "That's the kind of shortfall I think we've experienced in terms of setting forth a Republican vision across a broad array of issues."

But the person Cantor says he listens to the most is his best friend, the person most likely to push back. His wife of 19 years, Diana Cantor, is his political opposite on social issues, though they mesh on fiscal matters, and of course, he gets her vote. Diana Cantor thinks her husband should be talking to moms, too, particularly those who are struggling to send kids to college. The stock market freefall has sapped about half the value from the college fund they established for their oldest son, Evan Cantor, a freshman at the University of Virginia, she says.

The couple, who also have two high-schoolers at home, met on a blind date. He was studying at Columbia University and she was working at Goldman Sachs. Her boss was Robert Rubin, the future Clinton administration treasury secretary now being blamed by some for steering Citigroup toward the financial cataclysm that led to this fall's government bailout.

Cantor confessed "Republican leanings" that first night.

"I said, 'I thought you were Jewish?' I'd never met someone who was Jewish and Republican," Diana Cantor, who is six years older, remembers saying in all seriousness. At their 1989 wedding, an uncle of Diana's declared during a toast that "there is now peace in the animal kingdom between elephants and donkeys."

Diana's father, who died the year before the Cantors married, had been a player in Florida Democratic politics and owned Miami's Freedom Tower, a downtown icon beloved by Cuban Americans. Eric's father, meanwhile, built suburban developments, was a delegate to Ronald Reagan's presidential nominating convention and immersed his son in grass-roots political canvassing through his close friendship with Richard Obenshain, an influential Virginia Republican who died in a 1978 plane crash after winning his party's U.S. Senate nomination.

Eric Cantor was raised in what he describes as a "somewhat observant" conservative Jewish household in Richmond. He attends an orthodox synagogue, but says he's "in between" conservative and orthodox; he keeps a "modicum of kosher" and schedules classes every two weeks with a rabbi in Washington, though he says "I'm not a perfect attender."

Before going into politics, Cantor worked in the family real estate business. Diana Cantor became executive director of the multibillion-dollar Virginia College Savings Plan. She is now a managing partner at New York Private Bank & Trust and a member of the boards of Domino's Pizza and of Media General, which owns the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Eric Cantor, who opposes bailing out U.S. automakers, bought the family a hybrid Toyota Highlander.

Diana's 73-year-old mother, Barbara Fine -- an avowed Democrat -- moved in eight years ago when Cantor was running for Congress, ratcheting up the pressure from the left that Cantor seems to delight in resisting.

"I tell my friends, 'Eric hears everything that could be in contrast to his core set of beliefs,' " Diana Cantor says in an interview at her husband's elegantly appointed Capitol Hill office, where her husband proudly notes the M&Ms in the bowl are dark chocolate. "He hears it all. Most of it on social issues."

The Rap Over the Bailout

Even before this November's election, Cantor was able to take a measure of the perils that await him as his clout grows.

During the fight over the Wall Street bailout, he seemed to be in front of every microphone, at the center of every key meeting. He looked perfectly in sync with a public that was furious at the prospect of bailing out Wall Street while their savings were evaporating in a plummeting stock market.

But he was about to get schooled.

After the first version of the bailout was defeated, Cantor appeared at a news conference and waved a copy of the speech delivered before the vote by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who blamed the crisis on "reckless" Bush administration policies. "Right here is the reason I believe why this vote failed," Cantor said.

The remark, a single line at a news conference, gave Democrats an opportunity to shift some public opinion against Republicans. With the stock market in freefall after the vote, Barney Frank, the veteran Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, mocked Cantor and other Republicans opponents.

"Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decide to punish the country," Frank said stingingly. "Give me those 12 people's names and I will go talk uncharacteristically nicely to them."

McCarthy, the Young Gun from California who is now Cantor's chief deputy whip, said in an interview that "it was probably a good learning experience" for his friend.

"Whoever thinks politics is not a contact sport doesn't understand this place," McCarthy said. "Nobody in this house hasn't had to take a punch. It's just, did you get back up? This was not a knockout punch."

Despite taking that whack from Frank, Cantor is widely credited with restoring order among Republicans afterward and speeding the passage of the bailout by inserting an insurance provision into the bill. "It was because of Eric that we kept our cool," Ryan, his fellow Young Guns leader, said in an interview. "People [in the Republican ranks] were screaming. People didn't want to have anything to do with it."

Two months later, Cantor still thinks he got bad rap about his comments after the first bailout vote, and he argues that Pelosi "made the most political speech ever." But the man who is searching for an alchemy of words and ideas to revive his party is finding that he can needle the opposition and, like Frank, make his supporters smile.

On a bitterly cold Washington afternoon, he held open the door to the U.S. Botanic Garden for a group of constituents he'd bused up from Richmond for a tour.

"Y'all come on in," he said, brushing a hint of a Southern drawl that seems most pronounced when he is among Virginians.

"I'd rather have 2 billion dollars," one woman said.

Cantor pointed at the Democrat-controlled Capitol, the place where he accuses his opponents of overspending, and smiled and said: "There's the ATM."

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