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Making Hay of DeLay?

Using the swirl of controversy surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as a springboard, Democrats have ratcheted up their push to convince voters that the GOP has ushered in an era of corruption in Congress.

Democrats are painting the latest news reports concerning DeLay’s fundraising practices and relationship with embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff as simply the tip of an iceberg of ethical problems surrounding House Republicans, and indicative of what they say is widespread corruption gripping the party controlling the institution.

At Tuesday’s lunch gathering of party leaders, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) pledged “to go after every ethically challenged Republican out there,” according to one well-placed Democratic staffer.

“Politically speaking this is much bigger than Tom DeLay,” added a senior Congressional Democratic aide.

Staffers at the DCCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association are digging into their archives for photos of Republican officeholders and candidates with DeLay, as well as compiling lists of candidates who received help either directly from the Majority Leader or from his leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority, according to informed sources.

The DGA, for example, is pursuing connections between DeLay and Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle, who is expected to run for governor in 2006.

The DSCC, meanwhile, has compiled a fact sheet of quotes made by Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in support of DeLay. Bonilla has said he will run for the Senate if, as expected, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) returns to Texas to seek the governor’s mansion.

“Where is Henry Bonilla to defend Tom DeLay when he needs it most?” asks the release, pointing out that Bonilla has referred to his Texas colleague as “one of the greatest leaders this nation has ever seen.”

In recent weeks Democrats have engaged in a coordinated campaign with key constituency and public interest groups to ensure the public is aware of the allegations and that the drum beat continues. Party fundraisers have also used the controversy surrounding DeLay to try to coax more money from top donors.

One well-placed House Democrat said the minority’s strategy is to keep pressing for an improved ethical environment in the House and questioning the GOP’s leadership until DeLay falls or takes his party down with him.

For their part, Republicans dismissed the tactics as simply a rehashing of their past efforts to demonize DeLay, efforts that have largely failed because, while he casts a massive shadow in the Capitol, most people in the country simply don’t recognize the Texas Member.

Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant, dismissed the latest Democratic tactics as nothing more than a partisan gambit.

“The Democrats can’t stand Tom because he is a tremendously effective conservative who routinely defeats them,” said Anderson. “They’ve tried to make him an issue in the past two election cycles, and have approximately nothing to show for it.”

One high-level Republican strategist said the Democrats’ case remains incomplete.

“It’s not there yet,” said the source, adding that the public generally believes Congress is “guilty of ethical problems.”

“For it to become a flash point it has to be something that is more widespread, like check-kiting,” the source added, referring to the House bank scandal in the early 1990s that is viewed as one of the leading factors in House Republicans’ 52-seat gain in the 1994 elections.

Recent polling has shown that while DeLay is becoming slightly better known among voters nationwide, he remains far from a universally recognized name.

In an early February Gallup poll, 29 percent of those tested had a favorable opinion of DeLay compared to 24 percent who had an unfavorable view. Twenty-four percent of those tested had never heard of the Majority Leader, while 23 percent had no opinion of him.

By contrast, just 16 percent had never heard of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

Democratic operatives say that polling in individual states on the potency of DeLay and the overall corruption in Congress is on the agenda but has not yet been conducted.

Regardless, Democrats are ramping up their rhetoric.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took to the House floor Tuesday to offer a privileged resolution taking issue with the Republicans’ handling of the ethics process.

In particular, Pelosi criticized Republican leaders for changing the ethics rules to require that a majority of the panel, the membership of which is split evenly between the parties, agree to move forward with an investigation, and the shakeup of the committee’s leadership this Congress.

The resolution failed on party lines, with only Colorado Rep. Joel Hefley (R) voting with Democrats.

Hours later, the DCCC sent out a release attacking Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays (R), who has been among the Republicans most critical of DeLay, for supporting “lower ethical standards” in the House.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that Democrats will continue to call the Republicans out for failing to police themselves. He said if the Republicans continue to try to control the ethics process, it will come back to hurt them.

“I think the people in charge will pay a price at the ballot box,” Hoyer said.

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