DeLay warns former colleagues against endorsing presidential hopefuls early

As GOP presidential contenders scramble to cast themselves as conservatives to appeal to primary voters, former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) yesterday cautioned right-leaning Republican lawmakers against endorsing a candidate with nearly two years to go before the election.

DeLay issued his words of warning hours after former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) publicly endorsed Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I’m a little surprised that Hastert endorsed this early,” DeLay said in an interview. “It’s not usually what Denny does — he’s usually very methodical and thinks things through, although he may have already in the last few months.”

Although DeLay gave up his seat over the summer following his indictment in a campaign-finance case and continues to fight conspiracy and money-laundering charges, he remains influential in conservative circles. He recently formed the Grassroots Action and Information Network, an online organization dedicated to fostering conservative beliefs and countering the liberal voices in the blogosphere and elsewhere on the Web. 

DeLay’s ethical baggage still affects his public persona, so the real prize may be the Texan’s private support, something DeLay said he is withholding for now.

“A lot of people … believe that if you get on board early then it’s good for you,” DeLay said. “It’s also true that if you get on board last and you make the difference, that’s good too.”

Since the fall, Romney has been meeting privately with and courting the support of House Republicans. He has stepped up those efforts since the beginning of the year. Hastert’s backing of the former Massachusetts governor caps two weeks of rolling endorsements from GOP members such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Reps. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Dave Camp (Mich.), Tom Feeney (Fla.), Jim McCrery (La.) and Howard “Buck” McKeon (Calif.).

The effort has not gone unnoticed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose campaign said he would announce a list of endorsements soon. The senator already has the support of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as Arizona Reps. John Shadegg, Jeff Flake and Rick Renzi. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently tapped ex-Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) as an adviser.

Despite the early politicking, DeLay is waiting to throw his support behind the “right” candidate, yet noted that Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are his “two personal favorites” in the field of GOP presidential contenders.

“I’m sitting back and waiting and seeing who the true conservatives turn out to be,” he said. “I believe that our party, because of the last election, is going to have a good debate and the primary is a good time to have that debate.”

DeLay long has sparred with McCain, notably on McCain’s 2002 crusade to overhaul campaign-finance laws. Late last year, DeLay blamed the Democrats’ takeover of Congress on McCain and campaign-finance reform.

Although DeLay applauded Romney for his organization, particularly for hiring former DeLay communications director Kevin Madden and for his early fundraising strength, DeLay argued that Romney has “a difficult road ahead of him to prove that he is a strong, principled conservative.”

“He’s really got to prove that he’s had a change of heart and he truly believes in what he’s saying now,” DeLay said, citing the issues of gay marriage, abortion and judicial activism.

Romney’s Mormon faith, DeLay said, is not an issue for him.

“I know a lot of Mormons who are elected officials,” DeLay said. “[Rep.] John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is one of my best friends … Usually when you find a Mormon politician, they’re very conservative people. How that works in the body politic and the Bible Belt … how that’s going to play, I just don’t know.”

Huckabee is not without liabilities. Like McCain, Huckabee risks alienating a large segment of the conservative primary base with his support for President Bush’s guest-worker program, which would grant legal status to some illegal immigrants. Huckabee also raised taxes while he was governor, something DeLay blames on the Democratic legislature he was working with.

“Ronald Reagan raised taxes with a Democratic Congress,” DeLay said. “I’ve known Gov. Huckabee for 25 years, and he is a complete conservative. Both he and Brownback are fiscal and cultural conservatives and they believe it down to the depths of their souls.”