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Which Way Will the Wind Blow?

While the controversies surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, have not yet jeopardized his leadership position, he does appear to be nearing an important fork in the road.

If no additional allegations of ethical transgressions or new controversies crop up, DeLay's troubles may all blow over. In that case, DeLay will remain virtually as powerful as ever, and he will be able to hold his post as long as he wants. In short, his current wounds may scar him, but they are hardly fatal.

On the other hand, if DeLay suffers a few more body blows like the ones he has taken in recent months -- and if the wishful thinking of Democrats and the nightmares of Republicans seem likely to come true -- his continued viability as a party leader will be in serious doubt. A really big hit could topple him, given his weakened standing.

Of all the controversies swirling around the majority leader, the one with the greatest potential consequences for his future involves the impending decision by prosecutor Ronnie Earle in Travis County (Austin), Texas, on whether to seek to indict DeLay. Earle is probing alleged state campaign finance violations connected to DeLay's efforts to produce big Republican gains in his state's congressional delegation by redrawing districts in 2003. Three DeLay advisers have been indicted and are awaiting trial.

The betting today is that Earle will not ask a grand jury to indict DeLay. But, even if he does, DeLay's supporters will resurrect some of Earle's prior missteps -- most notably, his indictment of Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a case that never went to trial -- in an effort to offset some of the damage to DeLay.

Allegations that DeLay accepted foreign travel from registered foreign agents and from groups associated with radioactive lobbyist Jack Abramoff may not be as serious for DeLay as his problems in Texas, but they have created trouble for him. These allegations have put his GOP colleagues in the uncomfortable position of defending a leader whose alleged improprieties certainly meet, and most likely exceed, those that DeLay and his colleagues used to drive Democratic Speaker Jim Wright from office back in 1989.

It's no secret that midterm elections during a president's second term tend to be bad news for the party holding the White House. Since the end of World War II, the party in power has suffered significant losses in the House and the Senate in four out of five of these "Six-Year-Itch" elections. And scandal has often been a factor in past debacles.

Today, the political climate is working in DeLay's favor. The Republicans' base voters -- the most important constituency for DeLay's House colleagues -- accord little, if any, credence to allegations of wrongdoing aired by the mainstream media, whether the charges are true or not. Many conservatives simply don't believe anything the mainstream media publishes or broadcasts. They view the media's reports as nothing more than liberal Democratic propaganda.

We are just now starting to get some tougher editorial-page denunciations of DeLay, most notably the one by the conservative Wall Street Journal. But given how few Americans read newspaper editorials, a blast from The Journal is hardly a direct torpedo hit to the engine room. And the nation's strong level of partisanship -- which leads each side to reflexively defend one of its own from attacks -- makes forcing DeLay from office all the more difficult.

Finally, swing and independent voters, two critically important groups, tend to be among the least engaged people in the electorate. They typically read newspapers and news magazines and watch television news broadcasts less than their more partisan counterparts do. They are less likely to even know who DeLay is, much less be aware of the controversies surrounding him.

According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken February 4-6, only 53 percent of Americans knew enough about DeLay to have an impression of him; 29 percent viewed him favorably, while 24 percent viewed him unfavorably. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted two weeks earlier (Jan. 13-17) by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff, DeLay's effective name-recognition level was just 37 percent -- 17 percent positive, to 20 percent negative. Given that only 37 percent to 53 percent of Americans really know anything about him, DeLay is still a long way from being as controversial as Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., became before he was forced to step down in 1998.

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