House Majority Leader Tom DeLay hosted parties, a rock concert and well-appointed hospitality suites in train cars at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. This week in New York, the GOP's most outspoken congressional leader was practically invisible.
DeLay (R-Tex.) stayed clear of the convention podium, spoke only to the Texas delegation, and kept his public schedule so lean that he alerted reporters to just four appearances in five days. His most visible event, Thursday's visit to a ballfield for low-income children, took place in East Harlem, miles from the Madison Square Garden convention site and the Midtown restaurant scene.
DeLay's low profile left several conventioneers scratching their heads. Some Democrats alleged that GOP organizers had choreographed it as part of a strategy to highlight moderate speakers and leave the sharpest verbal assaults to a Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. "They were trying to brush their extremism under the rug," Democratic Party spokesman Matt Bennett said.
People close to DeLay, however, said his semi-exile was self-imposed, stemming mainly from disappointment that a firestorm of criticism had forced him in May to cancel plans for extravagant parties, cruises, dinners and fundraising. If that had not happened, DeLay might have been the toast of Manhattan this week.
Early this year he proposed leasing a cruise ship to house colleagues and lobbyists, but he dropped it when New York officials said local hotels would suffer. DeLay then sought large donations from groups and individuals to fund parties, private dinners, a golf tournament and yacht cruises, with the profits to go to a charity called Celebrations for Children.
Government watchdog groups denounced the idea, calling it a gimmick to allow special interest groups to ingratiate themselves and spend time with the House's second-ranking leader. DeLay eventually canceled the events, and his passion for convention shindigs seemed to expire.
In an interview Thursday, DeLay said he has been happy to concentrate on electing more Republicans to the House, a task best done behind the scenes at a presidential nominating convention.
"I tried to raise money for kids, and that didn't work out," he said. "So I just changed my focus to meeting people, networking and raising money" for House candidates. He added: "My job is to grow the majority in the House. The convention is focused on reelecting George Bush."
That revised strategy allowed numerous party-hosting, rank-and-file Republican lawmakers -- who usually toil in his shadow in Washington -- to outshine him here. And Congress's other top-ranking Republicans -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) -- had ample running room. They addressed the convention from Madison Square Garden's podium, spoke to state delegations and hopped from event to event, often with cameras in tow.
Frist, weighing a 2008 presidential bid, maintained an especially hectic schedule of media interviews and breakfast speeches to delegations, including those from Iowa and New Hampshire. He called a news conference Wednesday to announce that his charity organization, World of Hope, raised $3 million to fight HIV/AIDS worldwide, and he later hosted a concert at Rockefeller Center featuring the country duo Brooks & Dunn.
Like DeLay, Hastert exhibits no presidential ambitions, but the two seemed to swap their familiar roles this week. In Washington, Hastert rarely holds news conferences and typically lets DeLay grab the spotlight by attacking Democrats and by championing conservative causes. But with DeLay virtually invisible here, Hastert played the Republican Party animal, bouncing from one venue to the next, day and night.
The New York Times ran a large photo Wednesday of him drinking beer with Gov. George W. Pataki at McSorley's Old Ale House. That night, patrons chanted Hastert's name when he arrived at a party in his honor at the Chelsea nightclub Avalon.
DeLay, meantime, has generally "had dinner and gone home" to his hotel, spokesman Jonathan Grella said. In addition to helping GOP House candidates raise money this week, DeLay said he made time for three other priorities. In a nod Tuesday to the space industry centered near his Houston area district, he attended a NASA-related event called Space Jam 2004.
In lieu of raising money for Celebrations for Children, which helps underprivileged Texas youths, he offered moral support and $225,000 in proposed federal funding Thursday to Harlem RBI. The nonprofit group sponsors baseball and softball teams, plus other after-school programs, for children in a low-income section of New York.
DeLay, an outspoken advocate of Israel and a leader of efforts to lure more Jewish voters to the Republican Party, displayed his most political side Monday at an invitation-only party hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Plaza Hotel. He compared Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to al Qaeda, adding: "John Kerry thinks that success in the war on terror depends on the French and the Germans."
The crowd of 1,300 roared its approval. But no one beyond the hotel ballroom -- 25 blocks north of the convention site -- heard.