DeLay: Fred Thompson was a good senator, but not a leader

PHILADELPHIA - Former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the bogeyman of Democrats everywhere, brought good news to Democratic Philadelphia recently: He still believes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., will win the presidency next year, thanks to her organization and Republicans' disarray.

"The Democrats have been very good at building one of the most powerful coalitions I've ever witnessed, very well-financed, very well-coordinated," DeLay told an audience of more than 200 at the National Constitution Center. "It all belongs to Hillary Clinton. That's why she'll be the next president of the United States, especially if the Republicans don't get their act together. And I don't see that they are."

DeLay, in town to promote his memoir "No Retreat, No Surrender," is one of the most relentless fund-raisers in GOP history. And raising the specter of Hillary Clinton has, for years, been one of the Republican Party's most reliable fund-raising ploys. So there's always the chance that the former Texas congressman is engaged in an ongoing attempt to scare up donations for GOP campaign coffers.

But there also was a tone of grudging admiration in the comments of DeLay, who says the problem with politics is that there's not "enough" money in it. Since he resigned from Congress in 2006 under indictment for a fund-raising scheme in Texas, he's been researching the opposition. Although Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has a slim lead over Clinton in fund-raising, DeLay is more impressed with the network of influential Clinton allies working hard to expand the Democratic Party and raise money for her campaign.

"I'm not criticizing it," DeLay said. "I'm a big believer in organization and funding. And they are so well-organized. We (Republicans) have no organization at all, especially since Mehlman left." (Ken Mehlman stepped down as chairman of the Republican National Committee at the end of last year.)

DeLay has predicted a Clinton win before, but said the fund-raising results so far this year had made clear to him that "Republicans are doing nothing."

As for GOP presidential candidates, DeLay said nobody in the race excited him. Nor does former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy soon.

"People don't know who Fred Thompson is, other than he's an actor," DeLay said. "I don't know who he is. He was a good senator; he voted by and large conservatively, but he wasn't a leader. He had no real cause." Thompson served as a Tennessee senator from 1994 to 2003.

DeLay, who played a key part in consolidating the power of House Republicans in the 1990s, is not willing to accept blame for their ouster last year. Two former DeLay aides and his friend, uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, have been convicted in a wide-ranging corruption probe that contributed to the GOP's losses. While DeLay acknowledges that Republican campaign donors are disenchanted and are "holding back" this year, publicly he seems to feel not the least bit responsible for those developments. Asked whether he had exercised poor judgment in the company he kept, DeLay replied: "Not any more than anybody else."

"The Jack Abramoff I knew is not the Jack Abramoff who's serving in jail," DeLay said. "As far as my association with him, it was all on issues, party issues. He was a friend, so I would listen to him when he'd come lobbying. But other than that, that was my contact with him."

As for those first-class plane tickets to Scotland for DeLay and his wife, well, a DeLay lawyer has said that DeLay wasn't aware at the time that Abramoff had paid for them.

An audience member, noting President Bush's recent commutation of the prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, asked DeLay whether he would seek a pardon if convicted on the Texas money-laundering charges.

"If I am found guilty, I don't expect a pardon and I'm not going to ask for one," DeLay said.

Then he added resolutely: "I'm not going to be found guilty."

Dave Boyer, a member of The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board, can be reached at dboyer@phillynews.com.