SUGAR LAND, Texas – Rep. Tom DeLay took an early lead Tuesday against three challengers for the Republican nomination in his first election since he was indicted and forced to step aside as House majority leader.
While DeLay was widely expected to win, a close race could foretell a tough contest for the congressman in the fall. For his part, DeLay said he was confident his constituents would see the campaign-finance case against him as "a leftist abuse of power."
With 10 percent of precincts reporting, DeLay led with 9,522 votes, or 64 percent. His closest challenger, environmental attorney Tom Campbell, had 3,933 votes, or 26 percent.
In the other big Texas primary race, a former Democratic congressman from Houston won the right to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Perry in a state where the GOP holds every statewide office.
Chris Bell prevailed over Bob Gammage, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who jumped into the race in December after a decade out of politics. Perry won his primary easily, collecting 85 percent of the vote against three little-known opponents.
Bell said the victory was "exactly the boost my campaign needed" heading into what could be a historic four-way race for governor in November. Two independents with considerable political charisma — Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and musician and professional wiseacre Kinky Friedman — are seeking enough signatures from voters who do not vote in the primary to get onto the fall ballot.
In a third contest Tuesday, Democratic voters in a congressional district stretching from San Antonio to Laredo had to decide a rematch between freshman Rep. Henry Cuellar and Ciro Rodriguez, who served 3 1/2 terms in before losing to Cuellar in 2004 after two recounts and a court challenge. With no Republican running in the district, the winner will take the seat.
Rodriguez seized on a photo of President Bush affectionately cupping Cuellar's cheeks at the recent State of the Union address to portray Cuellar as a stealth Republican.
In early returns, Rodriguez took the lead with 64 percent of the vote to Cuellar's 28 percent, but votes from Cuellar's base along the U.S.-Mexico border were still being counted.
DeLay, 58, was indicted last year and is awaiting trial on charges he illegally funneled corporate donations to GOP candidates for the Texas House in 2002. The Republicans won a majority in the Legislature that year, and then pushed through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that sent more Republicans to Washington in 2004.
DeLay has also come under scrutiny over his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud in January and is cooperating in an investigation of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.
Tuesday's contest was DeLay's first serious primary challenge in the 22 years since he took office.
Campbell, a lawyer who was general counsel for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration during the first Bush administration, was considered the front-runner among DeLay's Republican challengers, who also included Mike Fjetland and Pat Baig. Campbell portrayed himself as a man of integrity and branded DeLay "unelectable."
Texas law requires a runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent plus one.
While no independent polls were taken for the primary, a poll taken in January by the Houston Chronicle found that DeLay's support in his district was 22 percent. Only about half of those who voted for him in 2004 said they would do so again.
But Republican strategist Allen Blakemore predicted DeLay would win with at least 60 percent of the vote. "We have awakened the sleeping giant," Blakemore said.
DeLay cast his ballot in his hometown of Sugar Land, then headed to Washington for a House vote on the Patriot Act and an evening fundraiser for his campaign hosted by lobbyists.
"My constituents get it. They know what a leftist abuse of power this is," he said of the charges brought by District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.
A documentary about Earle's investigation, "The Big Buy: How Tom DeLay Stole Congress," was set for release on Tuesday by a Hollywood producer whose last movie, sponsored by unions, took a critical look at Wal-Mart.
"I welcome it. As long as they spell my name correctly," DeLay said.
The Democratic nominee in the fall will be Nick Lampson, a well-financed former congressman ousted from office in 2004 under the new congressional map engineered by DeLay. Lampson had no primary opponent Tuesday.
Bush traveled nearly 1,500 miles from Washington to cast a primary ballot in Crawford. White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not say whether Bush had to make the trip because he wanted to vote in person or, as some suspect, because aides forgot to get him an absentee ballot.
The state's top election official predicted only 13 percent of the 12.7 million registered voters would cast primary ballots, so Strayhorn and Friedman should not have much trouble finding the 45,000-plus voters they each need to sign their petitions over the next two months.
Strayhorn, who calls herself "one tough grandma," got elected comptroller as a Republican but is running for governor as an independent, avoiding a primary against the popular Perry. She is the mother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Friedman is a cigar-chomping cowboy musician whose backup group on the road was called the Texas Jewboys.
At least two veterans of the Iraq war are running for Congress from Texas. David T. Harris, a Democrat, is expected to take on Rep. Joe Barton in November, and Van Taylor, a Republican, sought the nomination Tuesday to go up against Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards in the Crawford-area district that includes Bush's ranch.