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As the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina casts a fresh light on the Department of Homeland Security, House Republicans are gathering to choose the next chairman of the panel that oversees the troubled agency.

The Republican Steering Committee will meet Wednesday to interview candidates to replace ex-Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who now serves as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. While they cautioned that the race is by no means over, several sources in the leadership and close to the Steering panel said that Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is the frontrunner for the post.

“I would think King has the inside track,” said a lawmaker who is close to the leadership.

Several factors appear to be working in King’s favor in the contest, which also includes GOP Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Curt Weldon (Pa.), Dan Lungren (Calif.) and John Linder (Ga.). Those factors are his experience dealing with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his longtime support of the committee’s mission and his media savvy.

“With Katrina showing that this is a more high-profile job, experience dealing with the media is a plus,” said King, who has always been active with the press.

Over the August recess, King sent a letter making his case to every member of the Steering Committee. He has been working to follow up with each lawmaker on the panel in person.

King also has received vital help from another New York House Member, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds. GOP sources said Reynolds has been talking up King’s candidacy to his fellow leaders.

Geography could play a role in the contest. As a New Yorker, King hails from a state that has had recent experience with terrorism and emergency preparedness. Yet some Republicans from other states have expressed fears that the Empire State could gobble up all of the federal funds and leave them with less than they need.

“Several [Members] have raised that and I’ve made a point of saying that … the last thing I would do is try to give more money to New York than it’s entitled to,” King said.

The selection of King would represent a setback for the other chairmanship hopefuls, particularly Young, who is currently second on the committee roster behind the vacant chairmanship, and Weldon, the panel’s vice chairman.

Weldon, who is known for his aggressive and outspoken nature, has more actively courted members of the Steering Committee in recent weeks after initially running a low-key campaign.

“People know what I’ve done for the past 19 years,” Weldon said. “What I’m pushing to the leadership is that I’m a team player.”

But while Weldon’s résumé is full of relevant experience, aides in multiple leadership offices said the Pennsylvanian may have talked his way out of the chairmanship in recent months.

Earlier this year, Weldon authored a book that made several controversial claims about Iran, suggesting the Bush administration was ignoring vital information about the country’s allegedly nefarious intentions. In August, Weldon raised hackles again by amplifying a charge originally made in his book that a secret government data-mining program had identified Mohammed Atta before the 9/11 attacks.

To Weldon’s supporters, those examples illustrate his doggedness and his willingness to lead rather than follow or buckle to authority. They make the same argument regarding his frequent foreign trips and his tendency to visit the scene of natural disasters.

Just last week, Weldon (and a reporter from his local paper) flew to New Orleans with money and high-tech equipment for relief workers on the scene of Katrina’s wreckage.

But while Weldon argues that such adventures make him a better candidate for Homeland Security, GOP sources said they often have the opposite effect on Republican leaders. One leadership aide said the prospect of Weldon as chairman made both the leadership and the White House “nervous.”

Further complicating the situation is Weldon’s desire to take over the Armed Services Committee when current Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is termed out of the post in 2008. Over the August recess, The Hill reported that Weldon said Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had pledged that the leadership would support his Armed Services bid in three years.

Weldon said Thursday that he had not been definitively promised anything. “What leadership has said to me is that they are looking at me as a likely person to take over the Armed Services Committee in three years,” he said.

Weldon has had run-ins with GOP leaders on this issue before. In 2001, after he lost the Armed Services gavel contest to then-Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), Weldon accused Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) of having lied to him about his chances of winning that chairmanship.

Young, meanwhile, currently serves as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a post he took in 2001 following a stint at the helm of the Science Committee. That résumé could work against him, as some Republicans fear that handing Young a third gavel would go against the spirit of the GOP Conference’s chairmanship term limits.

“It’s a tough argument to make that you can hop from committee to committee forever,” said a senior Republican leadership aide.

Like King, Young also has sent a letter to members of the Steering Committee outlining his case for the Homeland Security chairmanship, arguing that he is fully committed to the panel’s cause and that his long experience makes him well-suited to the post.

Linder, for his part, declined to discuss what he has done to convince his colleagues that he deserves the position.

“That’s inside,” he said. “I don’t think you campaign for it in the press.”

As for his qualifications, Linder said, “I’ve done a lot for the party and I’ve worked hard on the committee. That’s pretty much it.”

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