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In a tribute to DeLay, a bid for party loyalty

Amid ethics questions, the powerful House leader seeks anchor in his GOP base as he headlines a gala event.

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Thursday night's tribute to embattled House majority leader Tom DeLay at the Capitol Hilton aims to send a message to GOP colleagues contemplating jumping ship: Do so at your peril.

President Bush won't be there, but a near who's who of Washington's conservative establishment will. ("Near" is the operative word: Absences will be noted.)

"The tribute is a statement to him: You're not alone. We'll stand by you. And it's to say to people in this town: If you pick a fight with him, you've got us to contend with," says organizer Cleta Mitchell, a GOP election lawyer on the board of the American Conservative Union. "Our target for that message is Republicans in the House and the Senate," she adds.

So far, only a handful of Mr. DeLay's GOP colleagues have publicly distanced themselves from him, including Reps. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, Thomas Tancredo (R) and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Mr. DeLay once conspired to topple.

But with the House ethics committee back in business, a new investigation into DeLay's travel and ties to lobbyists is ramping up. At the same time, an ongoing grand-jury investigation into alleged illegal corporate contributions involving DeLay associates in Texas fuels ethics concerns.

Also - and for the first time - the 11-term lawmaker faces a credible electoral threat. Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) of Texas announced last week that he will challenge DeLay in 2006. Political handicappers give him a shot in a race sure to attract millions in outside money.

Ironically, the Texas redistricting plan, engineered by DeLay, that helped defeat Lampson in 2004 - and add five seats to the GOP majority in the House - now makes it tougher for DeLay to hold his own seat, which took on about 20 percent of Lampson's former district.

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