- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Heading into tomorrow night’s celebration banquet for Tom DeLay, conservatives say the House majority leader is in better shape to weather ethics accusations now than he was six weeks ago when they began to plan a defense strategy.

“I think conservatives have rallied and sort of circled the wagons around Tom, more strongly than they had at that point. The case has really gotten out,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU). “His position is probably stronger now than it was at that time — I don’t mean internally, I mean in terms of the overall community; you don’t have new stories every day, it’s all recycled.”

He and other major leaders have organized the dinner at the Capital Hilton for about 800 conservatives, meant to stiffen Republicans’ resolve to back Mr. DeLay and to send a signal to the political world that they do not intend to let him be chased from his leadership role.

“As a movement, we do not stand idly by when our opponents and his single out a member of the movement, a leader of the movement, and attempt to politically kneecap him,” Mr. Keene said.

Six weeks ago, as the majority leader was being hit by a series of accusations that lobbyists paid for foreign travel in violation of House ethics rules, and by rumblings from a few members of his own party that he might step aside, a group of conservative leaders met and declared it was time to push back.

They announced a litmus test for conservative lawmakers to stand up and defend Mr. DeLay, and decided to hold this week’s dinner as a show of support.

“The message here is not only is it not driving a wedge, but it’s actually drawing his conservative base closer to him,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, another of the dinner’s major sponsors.

He and Mr. Keene said they have been surprised by how Republican lawmakers have rallied to the Texas Republican’s defense.

“Usually when somebody gets tagged like this, there’s this almost Jonah-and-the-whale thing where they start throwing people overboard so they can weather the storm,” Mr. Perkins said. “Nobody is talking about throwing Tom DeLay overboard. In fact, people are saying we’re in this together.”

Mr. Keene said there just haven’t been defections.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Are you threatening people?’ If there were any, I might think about it, but it hasn’t really occurred,” Mr. Keene said.

The dinner will feature about 10 speakers and include video-clip expressions of support from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, among others.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is also expected, organizers said, though President Bush is not. Mr. DeLay will speak briefly at the end of the dinner.

“The majority leader is very appreciative of the level of support he’s received from all across the country, especially his friends from within the conservative movement who have rallied around him while the Democrats and their liberal allies continue to attack,” DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said.

Liberal groups say Mr. DeLay is suffering from the accusations.

The American Progress Action Fund, an arm of the Center for American Progress, said it won promises from three companies that had donated to Mr. DeLay’s political defense fund not to do so in the future: Verizon, Nissan North America and Texas-based American Airlines, which clearly tried to distance itself from past contributions, noting that the person who made them is no longer with the company.

“The fact that a major corporation that is based in his home state feels like they need to distance themselves from DeLay suggests his support is eroding,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman with the fund.

She said the dinner itself “may be a eulogy” rather than a celebration.

“When your friends need to rally around you, it doesn’t say you’re in a very strong position,” she said. “The ACU may be behind him, but what he needs to worry about is crumbling of support within his own caucus.”

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