Friday, October 29, 2004

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Tom DeLay, the man credited with making Texas more comfortable for Republicans running for Congress, is having a slightly tougher time winning re-election than ever before.

Few expect him to lose, but several here in his 22nd District noted this week that Mr. DeLay has been forced to campaign harder and spend more time and money than in past contests. And, according to longtime DeLay watchers, locally he has softened his rhetoric while presenting a host of effective television spots that highlight his accomplishments and depict him as a thoughtful, respected statesman.

In previous campaigns the man known as “The Hammer” for his persuasive ways as House majority leader, has breezed through the every-other-year political competition, usually winning with 60 or more percent of the vote.

His very personal role in helping Texas Republicans win a crucial struggle to redistrict the state more favorably for their candidates last year enhanced his already solid “can-do” reputation. It also may have placed him in some jeopardy from an Austin grand jury investigating whether or not corporate money was used illegally in that process.

He has adequate money: By the end of September he had spent nearly $1.5 million, and another $1.2 million on-hand, and was using that for ads.

Democrat Richard Morrison, an environmental lawyer, is his major foe, though a Libertarian and independent also are on the ballot.

Mr. Morrison has a tough row to hoe. He has limited funds — much of it coming from outside the district — and his message, that Mr. DeLay has lost touch with his roots here and is more concerned with building his national reputation rather than work for this Texas district, may not have changed many minds.

A recent poll by the Morrison camp shows Mr. DeLay ahead by only 42 percent to 35 percent, which has somewhat buoyed the Morrison campaign.

“Whenever an incumbent is below 50 percent,” Mr. Morrison said, “it shows that the incumbent is in a lot of trouble. The voters in District 22 don’t want successful politicians, they want a servant.”

DeLay campaign people roll their eyes at the Morrison poll. “My opponent is desperate to find something that might stick on me,” said the majority leader commenting on Mr. Morrison’s charges that he no longer is interested and working for the homefolk. “He doesn’t even know that I come home every weekend.”

Mr. DeLay, first elected to Congress in 1984, said yesterday he is appalled and chagrined about how Democrats have portrayed him. “I’ve never had a campaign where the entire nation has tried to destroy my name,” he said “They are going after me in the most personal and vindictive way.”

The Houston Chronicle, largest daily newspaper in this area, endorsed Mr. Morrison, chiding Mr. DeLay for pushing the redistricting effort so strongly, when legislation on school funding seemed much more vital to residents of Texas. It also mentioned his refusal to fight for funds for rapid transit in Houston.

Samuel Johnson, a Stafford salesman who declared he would vote for independent candidate Michael Fjetland, said this week he had read the Chronicle article and thought Mr. DeLay “deserved the scrutiny and less-than-favorable assessment.”

“He is mean, extremely mean — and if you don’t think he’s vindictive, check out what he did to Jim Turner and Martin Frost,” said Mr. Johnson, referring to the two congressmen who had districts carved up in the latest redistricting. Mr. Frost was forced to fight against a strong Republican in Dallas; Mr. Turner, in east Texas, opted to quit Congress rather than move to a new district.

Yesterday Mr. DeLay told The Washington Times he doesn’t understand why anyone would consider him mean or vindictive. “They can’t name one thing where I’ve ever been vindictive or mean,” he said. “I am passionate and aggressive and I fight for what I believe in. The Democrats think that is vindictive and mean.”

Some in this thriving district, located mostly south and southwest of Houston, are deeply concerned that Mr. DeLay might get caught up in the Austin funding probe.

Travis County (Austin) District Attorney Ronnie Earle is using a state grand jury to determine whether corporate funds were channeled to a handful of legislative candidates who later were leaders in the redistricting battle that split the statehouse like no previous action.

Three of Mr. DeLay’s close associates have been indicted, and more than one Republican has said they expect Mr. DeLay to be named before its all over.

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