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DeLay's faithful stand by their man, but may not vote for him

Abramoff issue raises rare doubt

SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Larry and Judy Deats live in the heart of Tom DeLay's congressional district in this spot just southwest of Houston, and they would appear to be part of the Republican faithful who have kept the former House majority leader in office for 22 years.

Mention Ronnie Earle, and Larry Deats accuses the Travis County district attorney, a Democrat who convened the grand jury that indicted DeLay on money-laundering and conspiracy charges, of running a witch hunt.

Bring up former vice president Al Gore, who attacked the Bush administration during a recent speech in Saudi Arabia, and Judy Deats says he should be charged with treason.

But for the first time -- with DeLay facing an indictment, having been rebuked three times by the House ethics committee and having been linked to the former lobbyist and power broker Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to political corruption charges -- the Deatses are not sure whether their representative will again get their votes.

''This has been difficult, probably more so than any election in recent years," Judy Deats, 61, said as she sat in a Mexican restaurant in DeLay's suburban Houston district. ''We're giving it all a fair shot, but I don't know how I'm going to decide. Maybe prayer."

Her 63-year-old husband said: ''I probably won't decide until the night before."

In tomorrow's Republican primary election here, undecided voters such as the Deats family could make the crucial difference for DeLay, whose hold on the seat had not been challenged seriously before.

But emboldened by DeLay's legal and ethical troubles, three Republicans have stepped up to oppose his renomination.

If DeLay emerges as the party's candidate, the road to reelection will not get any smoother. Former representative Nick Lampson, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, has been running since last year. And, with $1.4 million, Lampson has slightly more cash on hand than DeLay, according to the latest campaign finance report.

A poll published in January by The Houston Chronicle found that Lampson had a lead over DeLay of 8 percentage points.

It will not help DeLay that his district is now more Democratic.

DeLay's legal and ethical entanglements stem from his efforts to redistrict Texas to elect more Republicans to the US House.

Always a strong candidate in his own races, DeLay surrendered GOP voters in the realignment to bolster some other Republican districts. Now, after contending with the indictment and his departure from the House leadership, he could be facing the loss of the very seat he used to rise to power.

In the Chronicle poll, 68 percent of respondents said they were undecided on a candidate in the Republican primary.

DeLay must secure more than 50 percent of the vote tomorrow to avoid a runoff on April 11 with the next-highest vote-getter among the Republicans.

His GOP opponents include Tom Campbell, an environmental lawyer who was general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President George H. W. Bush; a retired schoolteacher and oil industry credit manager, Pat Baig; and a lawyer, Mike Fjetland, who has run against DeLay three times.

With more money in the bank than the other challengers, Campbell is considered the leader among Republicans trying to unseat DeLay.

Campbell is running campaign commercials that highlight his assertions of integrity, apparently trying to draw an implicit contrast with DeLay. The ads elicited responses from the DeLay camp, questioning Campbell's Republican credentials and bashing him for holding a campaign fund-raiser in Utah.

DeLay has put on a low-profile primary campaign; he has run no commercials so far. He has focused on reaching the most dedicated primary voters, through direct-mail pitches and phone calls.

''We've identified voters; we're down to the neighborhood level and we know the numbers of votes we need by precinct to win," said DeLay's campaign manager, Chris Homan. ''That's more credible to me than any media poll."

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