Reporter's Notebook: The Nine Lives of John Boehner

With President Bush leaving office, House Minority Leader John Boehner is competing with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to be the most powerful Republican in the country.

To get there, Boehner is trying to polish the GOP's tarnished image.

Last week he removed Rep. Don Young from his position as the leading Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee. The Feds have scrutinized Young for years and Boehner wanted his Alaska colleague out.

Boehner has also appealed to conservatives by standing foursquare against any sort of rescue package for the auto industry.

The next two years are sure to create even bigger challenges for Boehner. The nine-term Ohio lawmaker has to walk a fine line between maintaining the confidence of restless conservatives and outlining a pragmatic roadmap for Republicans to regain the majority.

After consecutive bloodbaths for Republicans in the last two election cycles, if he fails, Boehner could meet his political end.

But such predictions are folly for those who have tracked the 59-year-old minority leader.

While Boehner vies to become the most powerful Republican by leading his party back to majority status, back in April 1990, Boehner wasn't even the most powerful Republican in his home county.

At the time, the Butler County, Ohio, Republican Party met to determine whether it should award its endorsement for Congress to Rep. Buz Lukens, former Rep. Tom Kindness or Boehner.

Lukens was in trouble after a TV station recorded him bribing the mother of a 16-year-old girl with whom he paid to have sex. And Boehner and Kindness were after Lukens' seat.

Boehner was the local state representative. Kindness held the seat for 12 years before Lukens took office.

The party picked Kindness.

The next morning, the Middletown (Ohio) Journal ran a picture of Boehner. He looked like a man who had lost his soul. In the photo, Boehner's head was down as someone consoled him

I was in college then and covered the Lukens-Boehner-Kindness race for WKRC-AM in Cincinnati where I worked part-time. I first met Boehner a few years earlier when he spoke at my high school. My senior year, I had a long lunch talking politics with him and other local officials at the Liberty Restaurant in Middletown. In college, I interviewed Boehner several times while he served as the local state representative.

Back in 1990, Boehner faced an uphill climb.

Firstly, no one knew how to pronounce his name. On his press releases, Boehner marked an asterisk next to his name with a pronunciation key.

"Say BAY-nurr," the releases read in an effort to avoid vile jokes about his surname.

Secondly, his main opponent's last name was Kindness. I mean, come on.

Thirdly, Boehner was unknown in the northern part of the congressional district. It hugged the Indiana state line and ran a hundred miles to the north, far beyond Boehner's sphere of influence as a state representative.

Few gave Boehner a chance, especially after his home county Republican Party dissed him in favor of Kindness.

Kindness far outspent Boehner. But a few weeks later, Boehner trounced Kindness and Lukens in the Republican primary and became the odds-on favorite to be the district's next congressman.

And that's when I first realized John Boehner has nine lives.

Since coming to Washington, I've watched Boehner cycle through those lives, each time living to fight another day.

Republicans were in the minority when voters first elected Boehner. But four years later, Boehner rode the tide that swept the GOP into the majority for the first time in 40 years. Republicans tapped Boehner to be GOP Conference chairman, making him the fourth-highest ranking Republican in the House.

By 1998, Republicans dispatched Boehner to the congressional equivalent of Siberia.

The GOP nearly overplayed its hand in that year's midterm elections. It focused on impeaching President Clinton. And in the process, Republicans almost ceded control of the House.

Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped aside. Boehner paid a price too when then-Rep. JC Watts of Oklahoma defeated the Ohioan for his conference chairman slot.

But like Lazarus, Boehner rose again.

Boehner sunk himself into the minutiae of agriculture and education policy. And within a few years, Boehner became chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee.

Along with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Boehner authored the No Child Left Behind bill. President Bush signed it into law in Boehner's home district.

But rumblings persisted about Boehner moving back into the House Republican leadership. His opportunity came when a Texas prosecutor indicted then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Conference rules required DeLay to temporarily step aside. In January 2006, DeLay announced he would quit the House.

That opened the door for Boehner to become majority leader. And it opened the door for House Republican Whip Roy Blunt and for Rep. John Shadegg to take a stab at the job as well.

Few gave Boehner a shot.

But he'd traveled this road before.

The vote was scheduled for Groundhog Day, Feb. 2. For weeks, Blunt touted his overwhelming list of endorsements by Republican lawmakers. But Blunt, whose specialty as whip is counting votes, never quite had enough to put him over the top.

The Shadegg candidacy complicated things for Blunt and forced a second ballot.

And that's when Boehner shocked Washington by vanquishing DeLay's lieutenant and becoming House majority leader.

That fall, Republicans lost control of the House. But unlike the 1998 debacle, the GOP didn't pin this disaster on Boehner. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana offered token opposition to Boehner, which he deflected deftly.

But the Pence candidacy foreshadowed a potential problem for Boehner.

The most conservative House Republicans felt the GOP was adrift. The party had strayed from its principles. And conservative lawmakers said new leadership was necessary.

Fast-forward to November 2008. Democrats decimated the House Republicans and sank the party into a deep minority.

Republicans were in a fix. The House GOP conference was conservative, and while he has a conservative track record, many believed Boehner wasn't the right man for the job. Some also felt the party was running in place if it again tapped Boehner after he presided over two electoral failures.

Conservatives scrambled to find someone to replace Boehner. Perhaps Pence, or Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia or a rising star like Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

Cantor ran for whip after Blunt decided to step aside. Pence aimed for GOP Conference chairman after Florida Rep. Adam Putnam relinquished his post. And despite a whirlwind courtship by some conservatives, Ryan ultimately demurred to Boehner.

In the end, California Rep. Dan Lungren posed only a minor hurdle for Boehner to clear to maintain his leadership post.

He had survived yet again.

But the survival game is afoot again.

Boehner may have nine political lives. But it's clear he has spent a few. The question is, how many does he have left at this crucial moment for the Republican Party?

-- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He has won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.