With his future tied to the outcome of a criminal indictment in Texas, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is using an extraordinary array of campaign tactics to try to win his court battle and save his political career.
Other politicians caught in a legal bind have tried to make a similar case that they were victims of prosecutorial excess or partisan attack. But few have done it to the degree of DeLay and his allies, who have launched an aggressive campaign to portray the former House majority leader as both a victim of a vendetta and an irreplaceable champion of conservatism.
By so doing, DeLay's team hopes to accomplish three critical goals: undermine the stature of his Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, in the minds of potential Texas jurors; win over DeLay's suburban Houston constituents before a potentially difficult reelection campaign; and retain his political base in Washington before a planned return to power.
The effort includes television advertisement that portrays Earle as a snarling Rottweiler, a staff of well-connected communications aides and skillful lawyers, e-mail blitzes, talking points for friendly radio hosts, speeches and a bulging legal defense fund.
"There's a parallel campaign going on, with his audiences, his constituency in Texas and the [Republican] conference here in Washington," Kevin Madden, a DeLay spokesman, said. "It's important that his constituents and his colleagues understand the egregious nature of the charges he faces."
DeLay's indictments in September on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to illegally funnel corporate money into the 2002 state election forced him to step aside as majority leader as required under House rules. Ever since, DeLay has pleaded with Republicans to hold off permanently replacing him while he fights the charges.
But power in Washington, if not exercised, slips away quickly, said a senior House Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his relationship with DeLay.
"DeLay knows this," the lawmaker said. "He knows every day that goes by is a day he grows weaker."
That is why he has struggled to maintain a high profile, even though some Republicans are openly worried that his ethical issues are tarring them while his unsettled role in the leadership is sowing discord.
It is hardly unusual for the lawyers of a high-profile defendant to press their case with the public, said Lynn M. LoPucki, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
But legal and political experts could not find an example in the political realm that matches DeLay's efforts in terms of sheer scale.
"What I think is breathtaking is DeLay taking yet another first step," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Through his K Street Project, DeLay pushed to extend GOP dominance to the world of lobbying. His intervention in the fight to redistrict Texas to the advantage of House Republicans was another first. His willingness to hold open votes for hours and openly twist arms to secure victory carried political hardball to a new level. All of those have landed him in ethical hot water.
"And now he's extending the permanent campaign to one's own trial," Mann said. "That sets a new precedent. This is not a man who lacks chutzpah."
Through most of last month, DeLay's allies at the conservative Free Enterprise Fund saturated Austin with TV advertisements depicting Earle as a drooling attack dog.
"Bad, Ronnie, bad," intones the narrator, in an ad created by Nelson Warfield, who was spokesman for Republican Robert J. Dole's 1996 White House campaign. "It's not a crime to be a conservative."
DeLay's lead lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said he wanted the ad campaign stopped, because it was "unduly personal." But Todd Schorle, a spokesman for the Free Enterprise Fund, said DeLay's team made no effort to contact the fund.
To coordinate communications, DeLay's legal team has hired Barbara Comstock, a spokeswoman for former attorney general John D. Ashcroft, who gained experience conducting political inquiries of the Clinton White House as a House investigator.
Comstock has compiled a long list of reporters, think tank experts, DeLay supporters and House members who receive talking points, legal motions, judicial transcripts and research on the records of the players in DeLay's legal fight. Of special interest, she said, are conservative talk show hosts who are exhorted to keep chattering about the case.
DeLay's lawyers include the relentless and often profane DeGuerin of Houston, and high-priced Austin counsels Steve Brittain and Bill White. They moved successfully last week to remove the first judge on the case, Democrat Bob Perkins. They have motioned to have the entire case quickly dismissed, contending there is no crime on the Texas books fitting the charges Earle has laid out. For good measure, they have also motioned to have the case dismissed on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
If that does not work, they are pushing to have the case moved out of Austin, a liberal bastion in conservative Texas, and to have an expedited trial, separate from DeLay's co-defendants, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, who were executives of two DeLay political outfits.
And DeGuerin has become DeLay's most outspoken defender.
"We cannot call ourselves lawyers if we ignore the misconduct of a prosecutor," DeGuerin said last week. "Look, Tom DeLay is an elected representative . . ., but he also has First Amendment rights. He has the right to counteract all the bad [allegations] that Ronnie Earle has been putting out for three years."
All of that is financed by a legal expense trust that has raised $1.4 million since July 2000 from a donors list that reads like a who's who of House Republicans, corporate interests and GOP luminaries. From July to September, more than $318,000 flowed into the fund, by far the best quarter so far.
On the political front, DeLay has taken the lead in a drive to overhaul entitlement programs from Medicaid to student loans to agricultural price supports to try to shave $54 billion in spending over five years.
On Thursday, he appeared at the conservative Heritage Foundation to offer a mea culpa for the GOP spending record, which, he said, "has not been as consistent, unfortunately," as its record on tax cutting.
With his career on the line, House members say DeLay is trying to shore up his standing with the party's conservative base, which he hopes will see him as indispensable.
So far, the campaign is working, at least in Washington, according to Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) A threatened confrontation last week over DeLay's continuing exercise of power failed to materialize Wednesday during a three-hour closed-door session. And after a marked drop off, House Republicans are again pouring money into his defense fund.
"It's been very effective," LaHood said of DeLay's campaign. "People are still afraid of him."