For a core of conservatives, the race to replace Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as House majority leader is not just about who will help guide the party, but about what the GOP should be.
These conservatives, long disillusioned by the Republican drift toward backing big government spending and approving local improvement projects known as earmarks, hope that whoever wins Thursday's three-way contest to succeed DeLay will do far more than help reform congressional ethics and lobbying rules.
They want the new leader to renew the party's commitment to its core principles of fiscal restraint and small government.
"We will seek to marry fiscal and ethical reform," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), head of the Republican Study Committee, an influential conservative faction that describes itself as the "majority of the majority" in the House.
Added Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas): "I don't know how you have any lobbying reform without earmark reform. One of the root causes of the problem [confronting Congress] is not how lobbyists spend their money, it's how we're spending the people's money."
Members of study committee drove home their demands Monday when they questioned the contenders for majority leader -- Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is temporarily filling the post, John A. Boehner of Ohio and John Shadegg of Arizona -- at the group's annual policy retreat in Baltimore.
The sessions were closed, but according to comments the candidates made to reporters, each pledged to push for an overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules to distance Congress from scandals that some Republicans fear threaten their majorities in the House and Senate.
But for the more than 60 conservatives at the gathering, banning lawmakers from taking trips financed by interest groups or accepting meals paid for by lobbyists was almost beside the point.
Republicans must "return to the core agenda that brought us into the majority," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "We have to go back to the basics and start fresh. People have to check their guts this week to decide what's in our best interest."
The chastened mood among the conservatives stood in stark contrast to the jubilant atmosphere that marked their retreat a year ago, after President Bush had won reelection and pledged to push for a sweeping restructuring of Social Security. The themes this year were reform, rebirth and redemption.
"Their survival instincts are on high alert," said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that underwrites the retreats.
At the same time, Franc said, the study group believes that its calls for slashing government spending and taxes are gaining fresh momentum in a party groping to fashion a new image and message for voters before the November elections.
"There is a sense this year that anything is possible, that they have the rapt attention of the leadership," Franc said.
Typically, lawmakers' allegiances in leadership races are determined by personal connections, calculations of self interest, obligations to people who donated campaign cash and such quirky factors as who sat together in their freshman year.
All those elements are part of the battle to replace DeLay, who stepped down from his leadership post in September after being charged with violating Texas campaign finance laws. But the contest also has sparked questions about the party's direction -- especially after lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was closely linked to DeLay, recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges in a federal corruption probe.
"The Republican Party right now is facing a serious identity crisis," said Michael D. Tanner, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
In his view -- as well as others' -- the leadership race reflects the alternatives available to the GOP.
He said Blunt, a DeLay ally, "is clearly in the camp of the leadership that has been much more willing to spend money and increase the size of government. Shadegg is clearly on the side of small government, with Boehner somewhere in between."
Blunt sought to change his image in his presentation to conservatives Monday.
"I've been an advocate for budget reform," Blunt told reporters after he spoke to the group. "It's time this year for budget reform."
Blunt denied Boehner's charge, also made to reporters, that Blunt has been wooing some House Republicans with promises of improved committee assignments.
"There are no examples of that," Blunt said tersely.
Support from 117 of the House's 231 GOP House members is needed to win the leadership post. Boehner and Shadegg predicted the race would come down to a second ballot -- after whoever finished last in the first vote was eliminated.
Shadegg is widely seen as having the least support, and some Republicans have speculated he has agreed to back Boehner on a second ballot in an effort to defeat Blunt. Shadegg denied any such deal.
"There is a difference between me and Mr. Boehner," Shadegg told reporters. He said electing Boehner, a committee chairman who previously held a leadership post, "would not send the same message
Blunt's claim that he has been an effective replacement for DeLay faces a crucial test Wednesday when the House votes on a measure to cut federal budgets by about $40 billion over the next five years. House approval would send the bill -- calling for the first substantial cuts to domestic spending programs in more than a decade -- to President Bush for his signature.
Some House Republicans who voted for a version of the bill last year have said they are considering opposing it now. Blunt's candidacy would be seriously damaged if he postponed the vote or lost it.
"Roy has got to make sure he's got his ducks in line," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a moderate supporting Boehner.
LaHood, who was in Washington on Thursday, acknowledged that Boehner did not have the background or image of a reformer.
"Shadegg is the reform candidate, no doubt about it," LaHood said. But he said the Arizonian's late entry in the race after Blunt and Boehner had been campaigning for several days "made it impossible for him to win."
Boehner told reporters he made no apologies for his ties to lobbyists, many of whom operate from offices on Washington's K Street.
"Yes, I have relationships with K Street," Boehner said. "All honorable, aboveboard, ethical."
Curtius reported from Baltimore; Hook from Washington.