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Political vulnerability eyed in DeLay district

Democrats line up possible rivals

HOUSTON -- Democrats, who often ignored Representative Tom DeLay's Republican-leaning district, see a political opening in 2006 now that the House majority leader faces ethics questions and dismay over his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.

Democratic activists in the suburban Houston district have been composing a wish list of possible candidates as the embattled DeLay answers questions about his record.

In past elections, DeLay, who won his House seat in 1984, has coasted to victory, often with more than 60 percent of the vote. Last November he won, 55-41 percent.

Last week, a Houston Chronicle poll in the district indicated that 49 percent of those surveyed would vote for someone else. That number has sparked the most interest in a Democratic primary in the district in years.

''Now that DeLay is being pushed ever closer to the political brink, everyone is realizing that any of these challengers on his worst day might be better than DeLay on his best day," said longtime Democratic strategist Kelly Fero.

Not so, said Shannon Flaherty, a spokeswoman for DeLay, who dismissed suggestions that the Republican is vulnerable on his home turf in 2006.

''While he never takes an election for granted, he consistently outperforms his opponents because the voters know when it comes to the issues they care about . . . Tom DeLay delivers for the people of the 22nd District," Flaherty said.

Among the potential challengers are the following Democrats.

Richard Morrison, a lawyer from Sugar Land, Texas, captured 41 percent of the vote with only $630,000 against DeLay's $2.9 million in last November's election. Morrison is favored by local Democratic activists who believe he deserves their loyalty for his strong showing.

Houston City Councilman Gordon Quan, a Chinese-American immigration lawyer, could capitalize on the district's growing Asian and South Asian population.

Former representative Nick Lampson, whose district was redrawn to favor the GOP and covered areas that DeLay now represents, including the NASA area and Galveston. Lampson said he has been approached by several people but has not decided whether to run.

A nascent effort to draft former representative Chris Bell fizzled when Bell responded to e-mailers that he preferred to focus on his gubernatorial ambitions.

The House ethics committee admonished DeLay three times last year, and new questions have been raised in recent weeks about his overseas travel. Three DeLay associates are under indictment on state charges in Austin in connection with an effort to redraw the state's congressional districts.

DeLay has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with violating any law.

The public also has questioned the role of Congress, led by DeLay, in trying to have Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted. The courts consistently opposed the effort for the brain-damaged woman, who died March 31.

''He's vulnerable, and he brought it on himself," Lampson said.

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