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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

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    Rep. Jeniffer Dunn (R-Wash.)
    Rep. Jeniffer Dunn (R-Wash.) seeks support for her run against House Majority Leader Dick Armey. (Ray Lustig — The Post)
    By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, November 10, 1998; Page A01

    With Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) all but certain to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker, other House Republican leaders fought yesterday to hold off challengers emboldened by the GOP's disappointing results in last week's congressional elections.

    Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.), a moderate and vice chair of the House Republican Conference, announced she would challenge Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). Armey is already facing a challenge from young conservative Steve Largent (R-Okla.), and a third, lesser-known lawmaker -- Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) -- is pondering getting into the race.

    Armey aides expressed confidence that the majority leader would prevail when the GOP meets next week to select leaders, but the challengers are hoping to capitalize on discontent among both conservative and moderate lawmakers with the way he has handled the job.

    Livingston met with Armey yesterday, but members close to Livingston said he does not plan to endorse any candidates in the leadership contests. After months of lining up votes -- and a crucial boost this past weekend from the GOP whip -- Livingston appears poised to become the GOP's choice for speaker next week, when the 223 House Republicans from the incoming 106th Congress meet to elect their officers and make committee assignments.

    Livingston's ascension seemed assured yesterday morning when Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), his only declared opponent, abandoned the field. "I do so in the interests of unifying the conference, and of putting policy ahead of politics," Cox said in a letter to GOP members.

    As the majority's candidate for speaker, Livingston's election by the full House in early January would be a foregone conclusion. One member close to the likely speaker said the Louisianan, who now is Appropriations Committee chairman, would not claim victory until next week's meetings.

    But Livingston was in the audience for a speech last night by Gingrich (R-Ga.), who called Livingston "the next speaker of the House." In his address to GOPAC, the political action committee he once headed, Gingrich said he decided to leave because his continued presence in the House would have been an "excuse for divisiveness and factionalism" within the GOP.

    In the Senate, meanwhile, Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.) made clear that he will not challenge Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), despite pressure on him to do so from some conservatives, both on and off Capitol Hill.

    "I am sending a letter to my colleagues announcing that I plan to run for another term as assistant majority leader," Nickles said in a statement late yesterday.

    Handicapping the leadership contests is a hazardous enterprise, particularly because "members lie" when making commitments, as one senior House aide put it. Unlike floor votes, which are publicly recorded, party leaders are elected by secret ballot, and the art of lining up support in a leadership election can be something of a leap of faith.

    Armey spokeswoman Michele Davis said her boss had more than 100 votes from supporters "who said they were going with Armey no matter what," and ultimate success was "simply a matter of locking down the last 10" votes.

    Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who is supporting Largent's candidacy, dismissed this assertion. "The standard line is that from the first nanosecond of the race to say you've got it locked up," he said. "[But] no race is won until the polls close."

    On CNN's "Inside Politics," Dunn noted that while Armey may have accumulated many commitments immediately after the election when Gingrich was still speaker, "all bets are off. It's a new situation."

    Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a leading moderate, said in an interview yesterday that she was still surveying the field before making a decision. "We absolutely need a new majority leader without question," she said.

    Although they differ ideologically, both Dunn and Largent are critical of Armey's leadership, saying that the blunt-spoken Texan has failed to craft an agenda and convey it effectively to the public. In addition, they fault Armey for exacerbating the divisions both within their own party and with Democrats.

    "We must broaden the base of the party by crafting a message that reaches out to everybody from every background," Dunn said in a letter to colleagues yesterday, as she formally jumped into the majority leader's race. As the highest-ranking woman in the House leadership, Dunn has tried to focus energy on helping the Republicans improve their standing among female voters.

    Dunn's move prompted four members to announce they will run for her conference vice chair post: Reps. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Anne Northup (R-Ky.).

    Despite past antipathy, Armey visited Livingston yesterday for a get-reacquainted meeting. Livingston has never been fond of Armey's handling of spending bills on the House floor, and Armey was not happy when Livingston announced early this year that he would compete for the speaker's job -- probably against Armey -- when Gingrich stepped down.

    Davis said Armey congratulated Livingston. "I hear you have the speakership wrapped up, and I think I've got the majority leadership wrapped up," she quoted Armey as saying.

    She said they spoke for 30 minutes, with Livingston saying he was staying neutral in the leadership races and Armey "telling him how he does his job as majority leader." Armey did not ask for Livingston's endorsement, Davis said, nor did Livingston proffer it.

    As the day wore on, the competition elsewhere simplified. Rep. George Radanovich (Calif.) dropped out of the race for Republican Conference chairman, the fourth-ranking position in the hierarchy, and endorsed Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) in his challenge of current Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio).

    And Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) was challenging Rep. John Linder (Ga.) as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is in charge of organizing the party's House election efforts.

    Despite the proliferation of candidates, several members noted that those who started early had a tremendous advantage. Rep. James M. Talent (R-Mo.), who abandoned the speaker's race over the weekend, found that almost everyone he called had already heard from Livingston -- sometimes months ago.

    "People committed to Livingston in April or May and were absolutely sticking with it," Talent said, noting that honoring old promises made it easier to say no to latecomers. "You can get out of it without hurting anybody's feelings," he said.

    Livingston organized for a run at the speakership in late February, when he abandoned plans to retire in order to position himself to succeed Gingrich, if Gingrich decided to run for president.

    About 35 members, most of them colleagues from the Appropriations Committee, rallied around him to help canvass other members and put together a political action committee to provide funds for members -- the kind of attention that invariably wins votes.

    It was called Building Our Bases PAC, or BOBS PAC for short, and by the end of July it held $1.2 million, according to Rep. Michael P. Forbes (R-N.Y.), one of Livingston's earliest backers.

    The group of 35 met to plan and compare notes over pizza and soda on alternate Wednesday nights. Forbes said Livingston backers mounted to about 115, always with the proviso that Gingrich would voluntarily step down. After Tuesday's elections, the organization was available, but it sprang fully into action only after Gingrich announced his departure late Friday.

    Livingston received a major boost Saturday morning, when Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) put his organization into service on Livingston's behalf. Senior House aides use adjectives like "vital" and "decisive" in describing the galvanizing effect a call from DeLay's whips can have during a leadership race.

    Having DeLay on his side meant that Livingston had up-to-date phone numbers and home addresses of every Republican House member and chief of staff, invaluable when members are trying to reach colleagues when the House is not in session.

    DeLay also carefully monitors lawmakers' pet projects and is legendary for his ability to keep his word and deliver, so he can remind members what he has done for them in the past.

    In this atmosphere, the competition is at a decided disadvantage. Talent lacked the home numbers of most lawmakers, finding out that "it's a real tactical disadvantage" and there's no way of "getting around it when you need to get hold of people, especially when you need to do it quickly."

    Cox chose the iffy course of announcing his candidacy on CNN's "Larry King Live" Friday night, even though "any member would prefer to hear directly." Still, he added, "you've got to get word out you're in the race."

    Over the weekend, Cox brought in a slew of aides to help him, along with friends from his days working in the Reagan White House, as well as downtown lobbyists, his wife, Rebecca, an experienced political operative in her own right, and even his nine-week-old son, Kevin: "If I ever got tough questions, I gave the phone to him," Cox said.

    He said he managed to get "eight or nine numbers for one person" at times, as well as reach some lawmakers who were traveling overseas.

    Cox noted that one California Republican "made the mistake" of taking his cell phone to the golf course Saturday and "got so many calls from people running for leadership" that "he finished 48 over par."

    Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

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