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Cantor Walks Fine Line as DeLay Defender

In just over two years as a part of the House GOP leadership team, Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) has developed into a prolific fundraiser and a formidable presence on the House floor.

More recently, however, Cantor appears to have acquired a new role: chief defender of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Since then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) filed an ethics complaint against DeLay last year alleging a host of improprieties, Cantor has been one of the Majority Leader’s most visible advocates.

He has appeared at multiple press conferences and been available to tell any reporter who asked whether House Republicans remain fully supportive of DeLay, whom Cantor says is being targeted by Democrats and liberal groups simply because he is an effective leader.

In an interview, Cantor said that his high-profile defense of DeLay has not been by design.

“I don’t think there’s any sort of concerted plan of action at all,” Cantor said. “What I saw simply was an attempt by Democrats and their friends on the outside … to essentially attempt to derail what we in the majority are trying to do. This is more than just Tom DeLay; this is the Democrats trying to regain majority status.”

Given his widely acknowledged status as an up-and-coming star in House Republican circles, Cantor’s defense of DeLay has required him to strike a sometimes tricky balance, according to Republican aides.

On one hand, Cantor has certainly enhanced his status as a team player by rallying to DeLay’s side, especially since the Majority Leader still appears to have the strong support of the majority of the Republican Conference.

On the other hand, if more charges emerge against DeLay and he is eventually forced out of power, Cantor could potentially suffer if he has aligned himself too closely with the Texan.

“I think that he’s showing the flag on behalf of the Republican Conference,” said a GOP leadership aide. “We’re a leadership team and he should do that. At the same time, one has to be a little cautious on not putting yourself into a propeller blade, but that’s not where we’re at right now.”

When Bell filed his complaint last June, Cantor quickly came to DeLay’s defense.

“These are nothing but trumped-up charges that have been in the news before,” Cantor said on CNN. “I think that they are — there is no basis upon which anybody can act on them, and they will be dismissed.”

Then in October, when the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct admonished DeLay, Cantor again went before the television cameras to say, “There is an organized pattern of partisan witch-hunt here, and that’s exactly what all of this is about.”

As more allegations have surfaced about DeLay, Cantor has continued to defend the Texan in high-profile outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Cantor’s vocal support of DeLay has come even as his own profile has grown within the House. He has become an increasingly important voice in the deliberations of the GOP leadership, according to Members and aides, and he has also handed out more than $1 million to other GOP candidates and party committees since 2003.

Cantor’s outspokenness has been noticed by other GOP leaders, and DeLay is grateful for it.

“Majority Leader DeLay is encouraged that Members are seeing these attacks for what they are — a relentless partisan campaign to bring down House Republicans,” said DeLay spokesman Dan Allen. “Congressman Cantor is a well-respected voice and leader within the Conference, and his support is helping to shed light on the Democrats’ well funded, carefully organized attacks.”

Of course, Cantor is not the only Republican lawmaker who has expressed public support for DeLay, nor is he the only member of leadership to do so. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was a vocal critic of the ethics process that resulted in DeLay’s admonishment last year, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has also made television appearances on his behalf.

But no Member seems to have been as publicly vocal as Cantor, perhaps because he is one of the senior-most members of the GOP leadership who is still regularly available to reporters in the Capitol hallways or by phone.

As outspoken as Cantor has been on the subject of DeLay, he has been careful not to be drawn into any specific discussions or debates on the details of any of the allegations against DeLay.

For example, instead of arguing that DeLay did not knowingly violate House rules when he took a 2001 trip to South Korea paid for by a registered foreign agent, Cantor has stuck to a broader case that DeLay is under attack from his Democratic critics.

Similarly, when the GOP Conference responded late last year to a Texas grand jury investigation into a PAC controlled by DeLay by changing a rule requiring indicted party leaders to step down, Cantor focused his comments on the alleged partisanship of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (D) rather than on the details of the investigation or the rules issue.

“He should be talking about it from a broader perspective,” said the GOP leadership aide. “The media is looking for how Republican Members feel and because he is in a key leadership post he should just be talking about broader partisan issues rather than any of the specifics.”

Asked whether his outspokenness reflected confidence that DeLay would survive his current troubles, Cantor responded, “Absolutely.”

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