Hot race for No. 3 spot in GOP leadership

Candidates for House GOP leadership posts made their pitches to the rank-and-file Wednesday amid intense jockeying by conservatives aiming to elevate one of their own in the tumultuous aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's sudden loss.

"Conservatives have been very concerned that we haven't had a voice at the leadership table. And this may be a good opportunity to have that voice," Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana told reporters in the basement of the Capitol as Republicans met behind closed doors to hear from the candidates ahead of leadership elections Thursday afternoon.

With House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio staying put, and the race to replace Cantor as leader all but sewn up by California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the focus was on the No. 3 job, majority whip.

It has become an intense intramural clash with no certain outcome, as two candidates from different ideological outposts and regions of the country -- a conservative Southerner, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and an establishment-aligned Midwesterner, Peter Roskam of Illinois -- are challenged by a third who could play the role of spoiler for tea party hopes.

Scalise projected confidence as he left the meeting Wednesday morning and pushed through waiting bunches of reporters in the long, narrow hallways under the Capitol.

"I'm not going to stop until this race is over and once it's over I'm going to build a stronger team moving forward, I think that's something I bring to the leadership table," he said.

Roskam left a few minutes later without saying anything.

The whip's job is likely to become vacant because its current occupant is McCarthy, who is positioned to replace Cantor as majority leader Thursday as long as he staves off a longshot challenge from conservative Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.

The whip position is perhaps little known outside Washington --  or at least was before Kevin Spacey's scheming portrayal on the Netflix program "House of Cards" -- but it entails lining up the votes to ensure victory for the party's legislative agenda. And in this case, the contest itself has come to dramatize the deep feud within the GOP that pits conservative purists against lawmakers more allied with the Republican establishment.

In Cantor's primary election in Virginia last week, the purists won. A virtually unknown insurgent, economics professor Dave Brat, defied all predictions to beat the majority leader, who then announced his resignation from his leadership post. The establishment quickly struck back, maintaining its hold on the top two slots in the House as Boehner remained unchallenged and McCarthy moved swiftly to all but cement his ascent.

That left the whip job likely up for grabs and the focus of a charged campaign.

If there is a front-runner, it might be Scalise, 48, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House and hails from the red-state South, a regional and political perspective that's now missing in House leadership and that many Southerners, and others, say is needed. Scalise is presenting himself as a strong conservative but one who can work with establishment-aligned leaders, not just throw bombs.

"We've proven you can pass conservative policy that unites our conference," Scalise said Tuesday evening after meeting with Pennsylvania Republicans to make his pitch. "Because I think there was some feeling for a while that there was a conflict between the two, that it was either one or the other. And we've shown that there's a different way you can do this."

Roskam, 52, now serves as McCarthy's chief deputy and can make the case that he already knows the job and can count votes. To counter the regional argument, he's promised to appoint a red-state lawmaker as his own chief deputy.

"There is a heroic majority here, there is a majority in our conference that wants to move forward and do great things, and I want to be part of trying to bring that out," Roskam said after his own meeting with Pennsylvania lawmakers Tuesday. He dismissed concerns about his conservative bona fides, noting he'd won election in 2006, a tough year for Republicans when Democrats took back the House.

"I am a conservative who won in suburban Chicago in 2006 as a conservative through and through," Roskam said.

Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman, 37, was a late entrant into the contest and is presenting himself as a fresh face, supported by some tea party figures in the House and some allies who, like him, were elected in the GOP wave election of 2010. He's staked out less support than either Roskam or Scalise and some fear a scenario where he splits the conservative vote with Scalise, opening a path for Roskam.

If no candidate gets an outright majority in Thursday's secret ballot -- that would be 117 if all GOP lawmakers vote -- the lowest vote-getter will be eliminated and ballots recast between the top two finishers.