- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

A close ally of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert announced yesterday he would run for majority whip, the latest sign that Mr. Hastert wanted to limit the growing influence of Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican and a friend of Mr. Hastert for 20 years, said yesterday he would challenge Mr. DeLay's chosen successor for majority whip, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

"I have far more experience than anybody else in the race at getting people to work together," said Mr. LaHood, a fourth-term congressman who worked for 12 years on the staff of former House Minority Leader Bob Michel.

Mr. DeLay is the hands-down favorite to win the race for majority leader next year upon the retirement of Rep. Dick Armey of Texas. But leadership sources say Mr. Hastert is not sold on the notion of Mr. Blunt Mr. DeLay's chief deputy whip taking over the third-ranking post of whip if Mr. DeLay wins the second-highest job.

Mr. LaHood said he made the decision to run for whip after meeting with fellow Illinoisian Mr. Hastert Wednesday night for about 30 minutes. Mr. Hastert is a former deputy in Mr. DeLay's whip operation.

"The last thing I want to do is cause any heartburn for Denny Hastert," Mr. LaHood said. When he told the speaker he was considering a bid for either of the leadership jobs, Mr. LaHood said that Mr. Hastert told him, "Take a look at the whip's race."

The DeLay camp scoffed at Mr. LaHood's candidacy.

"We're running scared," an aide to Mr. DeLay said sarcastically. "Blunt's already got a majority of the votes."

The leadership elections are still a year away and are contingent on House Republicans now with a slender five-vote majority keeping control in November. The party that holds the White House typically loses seats in off-year congressional elections.

"All bets are off if we don't keep the majority," said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican. "If we do keep it, why change the team?"

Mr. Kingston, an ally of Mr. DeLay, said Mr. Blunt is the most qualified candidate for the whip's job.

"If the negative on Roy Blunt is that he's close to Tom DeLay, that's not going to be a problem," Mr. Kingston said.

Some Republicans express concern that promoting Mr. DeLay, a tough-talking conservative, might energize Democratic fund raising and put too harsh a public face on the Republican Party.

But Mr. Kingston said Mr. DeLay has a prominent role in the party and Democrats have failed in their efforts to tarnish him.

"Tom DeLay passes the test," Mr. Kingston said. "The Democrats are right to fear him because he's a conservative and he's effective. He's a natural enemy to their philosophy."

Meanwhile, Mr. DeLay bought dinner Wednesday night for another potential rival, House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, and discussed options that might persuade Mr. Watts to stay in his current job.

At the dinner, Mr. Watts made a pitch for a greater policy-making role in his post as the party's chief communicator.

"We had a very open and candid conversation about growing our party, about some leadership changes I would like to see," Mr. Watts said.

Mr. Watts, the lone black Republican in the House, is considering a bid for either majority leader or majority whip, and associates say Mr. DeLay would prefer to avoid alienating him. Mr. Watts said yesterday he might stay in his post as the fourth-ranking Republican if he gains a role in policy decision-making.

Leadership sources said Mr. DeLay was open to Mr. Watts' request but did not ask Mr. Watts to back down from a leadership contest. Mr. Watts is expected to make a final decision by next week.

"Right now I have no clue," Mr. Watts said. "My heart sometimes says 'Do it,' and sometimes it says no."

In a letter to colleagues yesterday, Mr. Watts asked Republicans to "reserve judgment" in the majority leader's race for now.

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