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Acting Majority Leader Blunt has learned much from DeLay

WASHINGTON—Roy Blunt jump-started his political career at age 22 when John Ashcroft made him his chauffeur for his unsuccessful 1972 campaign for Congress.

Blunt has been on the move ever since.

The Missouri Republican was elected the state's youngest secretary of state in 1984. In 1999, then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas made Blunt chief deputy whip, after just a single term in the House. When DeLay rose to leader in 2002, Blunt became majority whip.

The pattern of Blunt's rapid rise in DeLay's shadow continued Wednesday when he succeeded him as House majority leader, temporarily. DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury, forcing him to step down from his post under House rules.

Like DeLay, Blunt has been dogged by ethics issues.

Blunt was criticized in 2003 for slipping into Homeland Security legislation a provision that would have cracked down on illegal and Internet-based cigarette sales. He later defended the move as cutting off a source of terrorist funding.

It also would have been a huge boon to Altria, parent of cigarette maker Philip Morris and a company with close ties to Blunt.

Blunt's current wife was a lobbyist for Altria on tobacco issues at the time. One of his sons was a lobbyist for the company in Missouri. And various Blunt campaign committees had received about $150,000 from Philip Morris and affiliated companies in the two years preceding the legislation.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said at the time that it was "unusually brazen. ... It shows really poor judgment to put yourself in a position where you are seen as wielding that power for a friend."

Other House GOP leaders eventually removed the provision from the bill.

If DeLay is known as "the hammer" for his hard-charging, take-no-prisoners political style, Blunt, 55, is "the velvet glove."

"It's gentle cajoling rather than arm twisting," said George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield.

"Blunt is an insider," said Marshall Wittmann, a former tactician for the Christian Right and adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and now a strategist for centrist Democrats. "He is soft-spoken, but a hardcore right-winger who has very close relations with the business community and ideological conservatives. He's not as much of a lightning rod as DeLay."

But like DeLay, Blunt has used the fundraising power of his high office to help fellow Republicans. In the 2004 election cycle, Blunt's political action committee, Rely On Your Beliefs, contributed more than $680,000 to more than 100 Republican House candidates, mostly incumbents seeking re-election.

This year, his PAC has provided more than $263,000 to more than 30 House colleagues up for re-election in 2006—more money to more candidates than even DeLay's well-funded PAC, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

With another $469,000 in cash on hand, Blunt is well-positioned to make an even bigger financial impact on House races in 2006.

"Assuming (DeLay) is unable to come back, Blunt is well-respected and he's tended his garden well," said Mark Glaze, spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group. "Tom DeLay set the standard for using PAC money to win favor among his colleagues, and Roy Blunt seems to have learned that lesson well."

To alleviate concern that elevating Blunt could create the impression that DeLay was being written off and that Blunt's promotion was permanent, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., added Rep. David Dreier of California to the House GOP leadership team. The chief deputy whip, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, also will remain in that post.

"The fact that we split his job into three different people suggests that we're being very careful, that we indicate this is a temporary step-down on the part of Mr. DeLay," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California.

Several Republicans said that Hastert agreed to revisit the assignment of duties in January. By then it may be clear whether Blunt's previous ethical scrapes are resonating anew.

"He's susceptible to criticism," Noble said. "His issues haven't risen to the level of DeLay's, but the shock waves of something like (DeLay's indictment) mean that everyone who's had an ethical shadow cast over them will get a second look."

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(Goldstein and Stearns cover Washington for The Kansas City Star. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Roy Blunt

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