DeLay's War at Home

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STEPPING DOWN: Tom DeLay will give up his position as the House majority leader

As Tom DeLay steps into the shadows of the congressional leadership in Washington, the spotlight on his fight for survival shifts to his legal battle and reelection effort in Texas. Unless the 11-term congressman and former House GOP leader wins an unexpected victory in the state's highest court in the next few weeks, he'll spend the next year facing off against a zealous prosecutor and Republican and Democratic challengers for his House seat.

Even as Washington on Friday awaited DeLay's relinquishment of the majority leader's role, Texas tea leaf readers saw more trouble ahead. A new Republican challenger, already dubbed the "dragonslayer" by one Houston political columnist, launched his campaign for the party's nomination in DeLay's hometown of Sugarland. Coincidentally, DeLay reportedly signaled his intention to reclaim his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, a valued position for a congressman seeking reelection.

Attorney Tom Campbell, a Bob Dole campaign leader and administration appointee and backer of President George H.W. Bush announced he would run as a fiscal and social conservative. Campbell, a Mormon and self-styled environmentalist who voted for DeLay in 2004, has deep party connections and access to heavyweight fundraisers that make him a credible threat to the embattled former Majority Leader. "Tom DeLay's 'win at all cost' brand of politics has cost us far too much to let it continue," Campbell says on his campaign website.

DeLay also faces a Democratic challenge from former congressman Nick Lampson, who lost his seat after his district was redrawn during the 2004 DeLay-inspired redistricting of Texas congressional seats. Although Lampson is unopposed in the Democratic primary, the field is further crowded by the entry of an independent in the form of former GOP Congressman and DeLay supporter Steve Stockman, a far-right conservative defeated after a single term by Lampson. Stockman told the conservative Human Events magazine this week that by running as an independent he would attack Lampson "like a pit bull" and criticize Lampson's "ethical lapses.... that's something Tom can't do under the present circumstances."

DeLay opponents cite recent polls showing that the former Majority Leader's support in his district has fallen below 50%, but that is exactly where his numbers stood in 2004, in a widely touted poll just days before he won reelection with 55 percent of the vote.

DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, accuses prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, of seeking advantage from national trends by subpoenaing representatives of law firms and Indian tribes connected to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and records from lobbyists connected to disgraced Republican congressman Duke Cunningham—individuals, says DeGuerin, who have no direct ties to the campaign finance charges against his client.

DeGuerin told TIME his client is in fighting spirit."He's very upbeat, he's going about his business." Right now, his best hopes lie an appeal to the state's highest court to throw out the charges or order the trial judge to go forward with a speedy trial, but University of Texas law professor George Dix said that, while DeGuerin's motions are "very good, very interesting, .... with some sophisticated arguments and some really good bull****," intervention by the high court would be very unusual. Word from the court will likely come before the new GOP House leadership vote in late January. If DeLay fails to end the case there, the hope of a trial before the March Texas primary is a long shot, and in a state with no party registration, that primary will be open to disenchanted Republicans and disgruntled Democrats alike.