DeLay supporters air doubts


SUGAR LAND, Texas -- There's nothing about Republican Rep. Tom DeLay personally that math teacher Denice Shelburne doesn't like.

The Texas lawmaker attends her church, where he mingles with the congregation as an amiable neighbor. His wife, Christine, is lovely, Shelburne said - and everywhere in DeLay's 22nd District is evidence of his good works. "I just think he's a wonderful person," she said.

But as DeLay's legal problems have multiplied in recent months, even his supporters are having second thoughts about returning the 11-term congressman to office. With an unprecedented four-way Republican primary set for Tuesday, Shelburne didn't know late last week how she would vote.

DeLay was forced to step down as House majority leader last year after a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges of violating state campaign finance laws. He has been admonished four times by the House Ethics Committee and has come under scrutiny for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"It's difficult," said Shelburne, 49. "You don't want to convict him without a trial, but you can't ignore everything that has happened - though you don't know how much of it is true. I don't know what I'm going to do."

A poll conducted in January by the Houston Chronicle showed that one-fourth of those who voted for DeLay in 2004 were undecided this year, while nearly 20 percent said they would vote for another candidate. Only about half of the people who voted for DeLay in 2004 said they would do so again.

DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty challenged the validity of the poll, saying that the result is "contrary to what we've seen in the district."

DeLay's dominance in this largely Republican district - which meanders from the manicured, planned communities of Sugar Land to the manicured, planned communities around the Johnson Space Center - has been unquestioned for 22 years. Although he is considered the favorite against three relatively unknown opponents, DeLay has launched an unusually aggressive primary campaign, block-walking the district and holding a series of meet-and-greets that have focused on his core conservative base.

"He's been working hard but is under the radar screen and avoiding big media events," said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. "His campaign people are making very targeted invitations to likely primary Republican voters."

In contrast, conservative environmental lawyer Tom Campbell, considered the strongest of DeLay's primary challengers, is doing his best to attract all the attention he can.

Since the beginning of the year, Campbell has taken his "Voice of the Voters" mobile home - formerly used on family vacations - to the streets every afternoon, shaking hands and talking to prospective voters. Evenings are spent at Rotary clubs or other neighborhood gatherings. He is running ads in community newspapers and on local television and radio stations. But the $175,000 that Campbell has raised for the race can't begin to compete with DeLay's multimillion-dollar campaign fund.

"I'm just trying to show people that I'm here and am a credible alternative," said Campbell, who helped settle Exxon Valdez oil spill claims as general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President George H.W. Bush.

Campbell, 51, said more seasoned candidates would have a better chance against DeLay, but "they wouldn't run. If they lost, it would be the kiss of death politically for them here."

Campbell - who worked on the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole and the first President Bush - has never run for office. "Here you have a man running for national office, and he's not qualified to be a precinct chair," DeLay spokeswoman Flaherty said.

Last month, DeLay attacked Campbell's Republican credentials, a move treated as a victory at the challenger's campaign offices, a converted mattress store facing a freeway. (DeLay's campaign office is next to a golf course.) "It shows that he's worried," campaign manager Michael Stanley said.

Campbell supporters will likely be outnumbered on primary day by party faithful who turn out for DeLay, said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. But if DeLay has a weak showing in the primary, Jillson said, it will hurt him as he heads into what is expected to be a tough November race against Nick Lampson - the first credible Democratic opponent in DeLay's congressional career.

"If DeLay barely edges Campbell, there will be the sense that there's blood in the water. It will dampen the enthusiasm of Republican contributors and juice up Lampson supporters," Jillson said.

Lianne Hart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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