WASHINGTON – Long before his criminal case gets a hearing in a court of law, Rep. Tom DeLay (search) is fighting in the court of public opinion. With his trademark zeal, he assails the prosecutor in one sentence and portrays himself as a victim in the next. And the media — often distrusted by fellow conservatives — is his bullhorn.
"I know when you stand up for what you believe in, this kind of thing is going to happen," DeLay boasted on a Houston radio show. "It's part of the fight. I know Democrats hate me and they hate what I believe in and they hate the amazing things we've been able to accomplish ever since we've been in the majority."
Setting aside his own aversion to the media, DeLay has waged a blitz on radio, on TV and in print as he tries to shore up support in his suburban Houston congressional district while assuring fellow Republicans he plans to return to power.
Grand juries in Texas have indicted DeLay on charges of conspiracy and money laundering, forcing him to give up the No. 2 post in the House while the charges are pending.
His lawyers have challenged the indictments in court, raising questions about the law and the prosecutor's motive.
But their filings in court — which formally accuse prosecutor Ronnie Earle (search) of misconduct — pale in comparison to the verbal barrage DeLay launches every time Earle's name comes up in an interview. DeLay already has made more than 20 radio and TV appearances since the first indictment Sept. 28.
Prosecutors accuse DeLay of engaging with colleagues in a conspiracy to launder corporate donations — that are forbidden by Texas law — through the Republican National Committee in Washington, sending them back to Texas state candidates.
The transactions occurred during the crucial 2002 election, which gave Republicans full control of the Texas Legislature.
DeLay argues the prosecutor, a Democrat who over the years has prosecuted members of both parties, is misrepresenting the facts and misapplying the law.
Earle answered DeLay's complaints by saying, "They often accuse others of doing what they themselves do." Put on the defensive, Earle has retreated to the secrecy of the grand jury.
The back and forth may be confusing to constituents in the short term.
Kathleen Jamieson (search), director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said DeLay has adopted a standard public relations strategy of proclaiming innocence and shoring up his base.
"If you are Tom DeLay, you don't want your constituency to believe the indictments," Jamieson said. "You are reassuring them that this is bogus and you are innocent and you are being hunted by people with partisan objectives."
She said DeLay is helped in his strategy by the larger presence of conservative talk radio and TV, where listeners are sympathetic. Keeping them from losing faith is critical, she said.
"Historically, when people on your side decide you need to go, you go," Jamieson said. "At that point, you can't argue you are innocent."
DeLay hasn't been known for media openness. He's not one to linger in Capitol hallways to chat with reporters. He isn't a regular on the Sunday news show circuit, although he did appear on "Fox News Sunday" the weekend after the indictment. Washington reporters competed to question DeLay at the weekly briefings he held as House majority leader.
His media machine kicked into gear in similar fashion last year after he was admonished by the House Ethics Committee on a complaint brought by former Rep. Chris Bell (search), D-Texas.
The ethics committee found DeLay created an appearance of impropriety by meeting with members of an energy company while legislation they were interested was pending. DeLay also was accused of offering to back the campaign of a lawmaker's son in exchange for his vote for the Medicare bill and using the Federal Aviation Administration to track down Democratic Texas state legislators who had fled to Oklahoma to prevent a quorum on a redistricting bill DeLay supported.
DeLay, fellow Republican lawmakers and his supporters claimed victory, saying the committee exonerated him, even though the committee actually admonished DeLay and warned him in a letter to "temper your future actions."