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Cantor’s Profile: Leader in Waiting

In Republican circles on and off Capitol Hill, there’s a lingering question circulating behind the scenes: Just what is Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) up to these days?

There is little dispute that Cantor, the House GOP’s Chief Deputy Whip, is viewed as an ambitious and smart politician, whose workhorse reputation, strong fundraising ability and demonstrated loyalty have endeared him to his colleagues since he arrived in Congress in 2001.

There is a growing consensus that Cantor appears to be positioning himself to take a higher-profile leadership role in the next Congress. The one thing party insiders seem to agree on is that no one expects the Virginia Republican will be content to remain in the Chief Deputy Whip role in the 111th Congress.

Still unclear is whether Cantor is gunning for the No. 1 or the No. 2 GOP leadership slot, a question that is likely to remain unanswered until the outcome of the 2008 elections is known.

Republicans interviewed for this story declined to talk publicly about what the House GOP leadership might look like post- November, maintaining that everyone in the party is focused exclusively on winning back the majority — a feat that is widely viewed as improbable.

Yet, while the timing is unknown, most everyone agrees that Cantor’s trajectory in leadership appears bright.

“He has a great future here. The question of where that is, no one knows,” Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said. “Eric Cantor doesn’t know today.”

“That guy’s future is limitless,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) added.

If Republicans win back the House majority in 2008, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is expected to run for Majority Leader while Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) would run for Speaker.

“Congressman Blunt is focused on retaking the majority so John Boehner can serve as the next Speaker of the House and at making [Arizona Sen.] John McCain the next president of the United States,” Blunt spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said. “Any discussion about future leadership races is not helpful and is an unnecessary distraction from our work highlighting how out of touch the Democrats are from mainstream America.”

But political prognosticators see little chance for Republicans to regain the seats needed to put them back in power, leaving plenty of room for hushed speculation on the Hill and on K Street about the makeup of leadership next Congress.

Few insiders believe that Cantor would challenge Boehner outright for the top Republican job later this year — without extenuating circumstances.

If Republicans suffer major losses in November, some believe that the calls for a leadership change at the top would become so deafening within the GOP Conference that Cantor would likely wind up in the mix to become the new leader.

“If we take a bath, if we lose more than a dozen seats, I think Boehner, Blunt and [National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom] Cole [Okla.] are gone,” said one Republican insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think that Eric and [GOP Conference Chairman] Adam [Putnam (Fla.)] are the resurrection.”

The insider, who is not connected to any of the four top leaders, added: “He really is in a lot of ways, putting himself in a position to pick up the pieces if he needs to after the ’08 elections.”

Boehner gave a pep talk to his fellow Republicans last week, laying out a path for how the GOP can pick up seats in November despite a playing field and political environment that favors Democrats. There is debate among GOP insiders about how much blame Boehner deserves to shoulder if Republicans fail to pick up seats.

Regardless of Boehner’s recent rally call, morale within the Conference took another hit over the weekend when Republicans lost a special election to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) — a seat that had been in GOP hands for more than three decades.

House Republicans could lose another competitive special election May 13 in Mississippi, and earlier this year they lost the seat held by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

One rank-and-file Republican Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, predicted that House Republicans stand to lose at least 15 seats in the fall elections and that the losses will prompt a top-down change in leadership.

“There’s going to be a lot of new faces,” the Member said. “Eric, I think, is in a very good position to be one of those new faces.”

Within the GOP Conference, Cantor earned goodwill and loyalty from his colleagues by sticking to his personal pledge to not challenge Blunt for the Whip post before the start of the 110th Congress, even as many in the Conference encouraged him to do so.

“I think that commitment, that helps him in the eyes of a lot of people,” the Member added.

Whether Cantor will continue to uphold that pledge going forward is unknown. If Boehner remains leader after November, some believe that Cantor will challenge Blunt for the Whip job.

Still others question whether Cantor would ever directly challenge his mentor and the person responsible for bringing him into the leadership fold.

There is also speculation among some well-connected party insiders that if the GOP fails to win back the majority this fall, Blunt will not run for Whip again and leave Congress, providing an opening for Cantor to move into the Whip role.

Under that scenario, Republicans would avoid a bitter and divisive leadership fight between Blunt and Cantor for the Whip job, a contest that many insiders believe Cantor had the votes to win if he had run last time.

For his part, Cantor won’t address any of the speculation about his leadership role, saying the party has to be focused on winning back House seats and electing McCain to the White House. Cantor was in New York on Monday raising money for the party and for McCain’s campaign.

“Look, we just lost a special election in Louisiana, on top of the one in Illinois,” he said. “I just think my focus now is on trying to retake this majority.”

The key for Cantor at this point is to keep his head down and not be viewed as catering to his own ambitions.

“The one thing that Eric has to watch out for, you need to be more observant than ever that people will continue to view things as self-serving,” said one well-connected GOP lobbyist. “What everybody’s doing is calculating, but I think Eric has still done a pretty good job of making the right decisions about what to be out in front on and what causes to take on.”

But a couple of Cantor’s recent moves have turned heads, especially inside other GOP leadership offices.

Cantor was one of five Republicans — and the only Member of leadership — who signed a “Dear Colleague” letter calling for GOP Members to agree to a self-imposed one-year earmark moratorium. The letter, sent after many Members had already submitted their requests for the year, prompted private grumbling within the top GOP ranks.

Also on the letter was Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), and Cantor’s close relationship with the RSC is another factor that makes his peers uneasy but would bode well for him in a leadership race.

“He’s very involved in what the RSC does, and some would say maybe too involved,” said the Republican insider, referring to the need for people in leadership positions to be able to reach out across the party’s ideological spectrum.

Many see Cantor’s ability to cobble together support from House conservatives, newer Members whom he has raised money to help elect and some suburban moderates as a potent base in a race for one of the party’s top positions. He also knows whether he’ll have the votes to get there.

“He knows Members, he knows their hot buttons, and he knows their concerns, and he knows how to be helpful, and he counts,” Reynolds said. “I’m a good vote-counter. He is a damn good vote-counter.”

Eyebrows were also raised recently when Cantor’s office circulated a news article that focused on his role as a top surrogate for the McCain campaign but also touched on the widespread speculation that he is preparing to launch an elected leadership bid after the elections.

Late last month, the Republican National Committee named Cantor as chairman of the party’s efforts to reach out to the Jewish community on behalf of McCain and the GOP. He is the only Jewish Republican in the House.

Cantor has also joined with GOP Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.) — a group known collectively as the Young Guns — to play a leading role in helping raise funds for 17 challenger races. The effort will provide backup for the cash-strapped NRCC, which is defending 25 open seats in November.

So far, more than 50 GOP Members have signed up to donate.

“We can’t win unless we are on offense,” Cantor said.

Boehner, Blunt, Putnam and Cantor meet daily when the House is in session and by most accounts share a good working relationship.

“As Leader Boehner often says, this is the most united Republican leadership team that he has seen in his time here in the House,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “Right now, that entire team is focused on the same goal: earning back our majority in the House.”

Blunt has said he will not challenge Boehner for the GOP’s top job after the November elections, and most observers believe relations between the two men are the most solid they’ve been because Blunt isn’t viewed as a potential threat.

Before the GOP’s loss of the majority in 2006, Cantor, Putnam and Reynolds were viewed as being groomed for future leadership roles by Hastert.

“Each of us is a better person and have learned more about ourselves, more about the Congress, and more about the jobs we were asked to do by our Conference with some of that extra mentoring that Denny Hastert offered us,” said Reynolds, who is retiring this year.

Regardless of what happens after November, many Republicans are already looking down the road to Cantor and Putnam as the next generation of GOP leaders.

“Those are the two rising stars, and anyone worth their salt should be investing in them,” said another high-ranking GOP lobbyist.

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