WASHINGTON -- The contest to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader appeared to shape up as a two-man race yesterday, as Rep. Jerry Lewis of California and another possible contender announced they would not run for the powerful No. 2 position.
That apparently leaves the field to two senior Republicans - Roy Blunt of Missouri and John A. Boehner of Ohio - to compete for support from fellow House Republicans, who will choose DeLay's successor in a secret ballot election the week of Jan. 30.
There is a chance that another candidate might yet enter the race because there are a large number of undecided lawmakers, including some who think neither Blunt nor Boehner offers the kind of fresh face they think the party needs in order to distance itself from a recent spate of scandals.
Two lawmakers who had called for DeLay's departure urged their colleagues yesterday to refrain from public commitments in the contest, saying no candidates had yet fully addressed their demand for broader institutional reforms, such as elimination of pork barrel projects.
Republican Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Charles Bass of New Hampshire wrote in a letter to their colleagues: "Elections that appear to be foregone conclusions do not advance the reformist agenda many of us pledged to uphold to our constituents."
Still, the likelihood of a three-way race diminished, as no other candidate emerged and Blunt and Boehner moved aggressively to build support - mostly by telephone, because Congress is in recess and lawmakers are spread around the country.
The stakes in this succession struggle are high. The GOP is trying to right its ship after a rocky 2005, which saw the indictment of DeLay on campaign finance-related charges in Texas and the plea agreement of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff on corruption charges.
"This is a defining moment for House Republicans," said Lewis, who announced yesterday that he would remain as House Appropriations Committee chairman rather than run for majority leader.
"The decision we make in filling the position of majority leader will largely determine our ability to remain as the governing majority in the House of Representatives."
The winner of the contest to succeed DeLay, a Texas Republican, could also be in line soon to rise to the House's No. 1 leadership post, because House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, is expected to retire after 2008.
DeLay, who temporarily stepped down as leader in September after he was indicted, announced Saturday that he had given up his hopes of returning to the post once his legal issues were resolved.
That paved the way for an election for a successor.
Prospects of DeLay's money-laundering case in Texas being resolved quickly were dealt another setback yesterday when the state's Court of Criminal Appeals denied his request that the charges against him be dismissed or sent back to a lower court for immediate trial.
The denial appears to leave in place the decision of a lower court judge not to proceed with DeLay's trial until prosecutors have a chance to appeal the dismissal of another charge they had sought against DeLay.
Hastert announced this weekend that Republicans would choose DeLay's successor after Congress reconvenes from a month-long recess at the end of the month.
Boehner and Blunt immediately began campaigning, but Lewis and others spent the weekend considering their options. Another potential contender, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a leader of a powerful faction of House conservatives, also announced yesterday that he would not run.
Another conservative leader, Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, has been thinking about entering the race but has so far made no move.
"The issue is not who is the next majority leader, but where that leader takes us," Shadegg said Sunday.
"We need dramatic change and real reform. I will make my decision based on whether a candidate will deliver that change."
Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times.