In the race to replace scandal-scarred Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader, one contender claims 120 votes, another boasts 90 and the third says he has about 50.

They can't all be right, since the totals claimed by Republican Reps. Roy Blunt, John Boehner and John Shadegg far exceed the 232 lawmakers eligible to vote when the rank and file selects a new leader for an era of political peril.

The exaggeration is understandable in advance of balloting set for Thursday.

"We're going to have the first significant leadership election since 1998," says New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, recalling the year Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down following charges of unethical conduct and unexpected election-year losses.

Reynolds, who is running the party's 2006 House campaign, says all Republicans share a common view regardless of how the leadership race turns out: "I think they know we have the wind to our face" in the run-up to the November elections.

President Bush's poor poll showing accounts for part of that, but the GOP-controlled Congress has more trouble. A drumbeat of scandal — California Rep. Randy Cunningham's resignation after pleading guilty to bribe-taking, DeLay's indictment on campaign charges in Texas — reached a crescendo when lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in a congressional corruption probe.

DeLay, with close ties to Abramoff, abandoned his efforts to hold onto power.

In a race that will be won on personal relationships and persuasiveness rather than public campaigning, each of the rivals claim to be the best qualified to revive Republican spirits and fortunes.

Blunt, the acknowledged front-runner, is from Missouri, Boehner from Ohio and Shadegg from Arizona. All three are conservatives and 56 years old. And all no doubt have an eye on succeeding Speaker Dennis Hastert, who has announced that the next term will be his last.

At the same time, all three have raised millions in recent years from special interests as well as individuals, and Democrats will be looking for ammunition to use in the 2006 campaigns.

Blunt was beginning only his second term in Congress when DeLay tapped him in 1998 to be chief deputy whip.

Seven years later, the Missouri lawmaker stepped as acting majority leader when DeLay was indicted last fall. It was a rocky transition.

Republicans struggled to pass a sweeping deficit-reduction bill, and a measure to cut spending across hundreds of social programs went down to embarrassing defeat.

Both measures ultimately passed the House, and Blunt claimed bragging rights.

"This is not a party stuck in neutral," he said at one point, dismissing a claim made by Boehner. "This is an opportunity for reform."

He has since issued pledges to "move swiftly to enact new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties" for violations of the law, among other changes.

If Blunt was a DeLay protege, Boehner is anything but.

The Texan and the Ohioan clashed often in the early years of the Republican Revolution, and DeLay was widely seen as guiding the successful effort to oust Boehner from the leadership seven years ago.

It was evident when DeLay stepped aside that Boehner had been planning a comeback. He announced his candidacy on television, an audition of sorts for Republicans looking for a new spokesman.

And a day later, he issued a 37-page platform.

"I'm the only candidate in the race who has managed major legislative projects from a committee markup to a signing ceremony," he wrote. For the reform minded, he recalled his role in drawing attention to the House bank scandal of the early 1990s, at a time when Democrats were in the majority.

Shadegg, who joined the race days after his rivals, said he offers a "complete clean break" with the recent past. "I think in all fairness those that have been in leadership had a chance to reform and haven't done it," he said in implicit criticism of Blunt and Boehner.

The Arizonan first drew notice in the House when was elected head of the Republican Study Conference, a group of 100 or so conservatives concerned with policy issues.

He was elected to a junior leadership position next, but gave it up when he jumped into the race for majority leader — unlike Blunt, who continues to serve as whip.

"There's an appearance that we have become what we said we would change," Shadegg said.

All three men agree Blunt is the front-runner, and on little else about their race.

Blunt claimed more than a week ago he had 117 votes, enough to triumph on a first ballot. But his public list of endorsements, at 92, is smaller than that, and he has seemed at times like a candidate eager to sit on a lead. Besides refusing calls to resign as whip, he declined to join his rivals in a three-way appearance on national television.

Boehner and Shadegg both predict a second round of voting, after the lowest vote getter on the first ballot is eliminated. Each man says he will win.

"I feel very confident," Boehner said. He claims between 90 and 95 private supporters, despite a public list only half that long.

Shadegg said he's closing in on Boehner's actual strength, which he estimates at 50 votes or so.

"When I read that he was saying he had commitments in the 90s I knew there were bodies in Chicago that were voting," he said. It was a joke about the legendarily high voter turnout produced by a political machine that long defied reform.