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The Great Right Hope

Congressman Eric Cantor is the Republicans' rising star. Will he lead the party or will the party lead him?


He's not a fireball. No panache, no obvious ego; just stalwart and steady, committed to advancing the party agenda. And he quickly — some say rocket-fast — is becoming the future face of the GOP.

"He is a strong believer in the Republican Party and the principles it's based upon," says Boyd Marcus, a longtime political consultant and high-level state party apparatchik. "He's always been somebody who's willing to stand to its principles."

Cantor unabashedly admits he has, and does, and will continue to do so. So much so that you have to wonder if he's the real deal, or just a pliable party boy pushing Republican policy without reservation — even when other Virginia Republicans on the Hill are inclined to pause and think.

His recent defense of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics imbroglio, for example, has crystallized for Democrats the belief that Cantor is just the face — not the brains or the heart — of the party.

"His support of Tom DeLay certainly calls into question Eric Cantor's priorities," says Kerry Donley, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. "Is it politics? Or is it ethics?"

For now, Cantor's vociferous defense of DeLay seems to be just about the only thing that could slow — or even block — his ascent. A miscalculated run for office is another. "If he runs for governor or senator, I can easily see him losing," says political crystal-baller Larry Sabato, founder of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "But if he stays in the House and continues to pursue the course he's on, he could be the first Jewish speaker of the House."

Cantor's unwavering commitment to all things Republican got him appointed chief deputy majority whip in 2002, the third-highest position in the House and the fast track to greater stature. At 41, Cantor is considered very young for the job. But his personal style of doing business has earned him the respect that the title carries. It's also led to his appointment to important House committees, a barometer of a congressman's influence.

Former U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., Cantor's mentor and predecessor, says that style is an advantage when negotiating for votes. "It's his calm manner, his ability to disagree without being disagreeable," Bliley says. "The leadership quality he has is exemplary." It had better be. As a House Ways and Means Committee member, Cantor will be smack in the middle of the Social Security debate.

Cantor seems to be the perfect party boy, always ready with pithy Republican rhetoric. But observers say he's the real thing. And while once-ardent party supporters have retreated to a middle ground, they say Cantor is their hope for the future — someone who can bring the party back from the far reaches of social conservatism.

Prominent local investor Beverley "Booty" Armstrong, an admitted "card-carrying Republican," says he is one of "more than a few Republicans" who think the party is on the wrong side of many major issues. "I probably don't agree with Eric on everything, but he gets things done," Armstrong says. "I don't support many politicians. I strongly support Eric."

At the breakfast, the clock ticks toward 8, forks gradually stop clinking on the plates, and loud chatter lowers to whispers. A lineup of speakers, from Republican Party of Virginia Chairwoman Kate Obenshain Griffin to attorney general hopeful Steve Baril, fires up the room until it starts to feel like a tent revival.

"Restore honor and integrity to the governor's mansion. Elect Kilgore!" Griffin belts out.

"A true Virginia leader and a visionary!" Baril shouts over applause, speaking of this morning's honoree.

By the time the keynote speaker, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, steps up to the podium, the room sounds like a Wal-Mart employee convention, with spontaneous outbursts of applause and standing ovations all around. When Mehlman notes, "You can drive coast to coast and always be in a state governed by Republicans," the applause thunders.

After plugging the party's agenda (diversify the party; reform Social Security; close the home-ownership gap between blacks and whites), Mehlman makes it clear: Eric Cantor is essential to the mission. "It is incredibly important that Eric Cantor remain the deputy majority whip," he says.

As the crowd mills toward the ballroom doors to begin another workday, Mehlman reiterates his point to a reporter. "Eric is incredibly important to the party. He's a strong and smart leader. I've never seen such a meteoric rise." How far do top-rung party pols think the kid can go? "I can't see at the speed of light," Mehlman says, "but the sky is the limit."

There is a notion among some political observers that Cantor's "meteoric rise" was calculated from an early age, and not entirely by Cantor. Parents Eddie and Mary Lee were party activists as far back as the '70s, even attending the national convention in 1980. By Cantor's account, he was part of the party before he was old enough to vote: "Growing up, I was exposed to grass-roots campaigning. Politics was always dinner talk." No one at the table doubted where middle brother, Eric, was headed. At 17, when his classmates at Collegiate were figuring out how to sneak beer into the sock hop, Cantor was putting up signs, working the polls, going door to door — spreading The Word for The Party.

As chief deputy majority whip, Cantor's job is to coalesce House menbers on votes. He's the perfect man for the job. Hewing faithfully to the party line is second nature to him because he believes it. Cantor maintains that he shares, not adopts, party stances, and supporters agree. "He is a very loyal party Republican," supporter Armstrong says. "But he is sincere about it. It isn't trumped up. He really believes it."

If you doubt it, meet Diana Cantor, the congressman's wife of 16 years. With a résumé that begins with Goldman Sachs in New York and ends with her current position as executive director of the Virginia College Savings Plan, she is articulate and well-informed. But her opinions on most issues differ — often radically — from the congressman's.

Over lunch at a Short Pump eatery near Cantor's Far West End office, the pending death of Terry Schiavo is one of those rare subjects on which there is little disagreement between them. The congressman voted in favor of the parents. "It was a conscience vote," he says. "As a parent, I thought we should give the parents every opportunity to save the life of their child." The missus agrees for once. "It wasn't political to me," she says.

Which is where they diverge, yet again.

"If there's an allegation that the right to a person's life is not protected, you have to err on the side of letting it be heard," says the congressman, even though government intervention seems very un-Republican, according to the party's "less government" credo. "The framers of the Constitution thought government was there to protect the right to freedom," Cantor continues. "You do need government to some extent. But we shouldn't be tempted to have government control for every situation."

Like abortion?

Diana Cantor sucks in a breath and cuts her eyes toward her husband.

"Go ahead," he shrugs. "Let 'er rip."

She does. With one long exhale, the petite blonde with the disarming smile cuts loose: "That decision is between a woman and her family and God. I'm not an elected official. I don't have to defend my opinion. I've had three children and lost one in pregnancy. I would want that to be mine and Eric's decision."

Again, they disagree. "Diana is full of shades of gray," her husband says. "For me it's very black and white."

Cantor says that dissent at home makes him a better public servant. "It's good for everyone to have the input of different points of view to temper your outlook," he says. "It's strengthening to be married to Diana."

For her, it's more of a mission. "My friends get some comfort knowing Eric hears it all the time. His opinions differ from mine," she says, "but it's genuine. Eric's beliefs, to me, are so rooted in his deep religion."

The Cantors are both Jewish, a fact they each feared could be an obstacle to his political ascent. Recalling his first run for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1991, his religion, he says, was the wild card he'd hoped wouldn't become an issue. As a 27-year-old wet-behind-the-ears candidate running against two much older, more seasoned opponents, Cantor had his hands full.

"There were phone calls," Diana Cantor says, skirting details. The couple felt bushwhacked at first. "Some people seemed to think that if they elected a Jew, Christian values wouldn't be represented," the congressman explains.

Even while establishing himself as one of the party faithful, Cantor says, he had never entertained any thoughts of running for office. He just loved wallowing in politics. He'd had many opportunities to do so at Bliley's elbow, first as the congressman's driver, then as a college intern in Bliley's office and, later, as his campaign chairman. Marcus, who once ran Bliley's congressional office as well as his campaign, has known Cantor since he was a teenager, pounding the pavement for the party. "He worked very hard and very smart," Marcus recalls. "I felt like he was exactly the kind of legislator we needed representing Henrico." Marcus wasn't alone. "We all felt like he would be good for the post," Marcus says, referring to party leadership.

Cantor won the primary by a slim 264 votes, leading Bliley to nickname him "Landslide." It was a slow beginning to a rapid-transit career. As a delegate, Cantor continued to impress party leaders and high-level behind-the-scenes operators on both sides of the aisle.

"Eric formed coalitions with Democrats," says Scott Gregory, a political consultant who has worked on several political campaigns. "He is one of the few Republicans that ranking Democrats respect." It wasn't long before Cantor was ready for the next level. "After he'd been in legislature a couple of years, a lot of people saw him as the natural successor to Tom," Marcus says.

When Bliley formally announced he was retiring, Cantor was ready in the wings, with the party's — and Bliley's — blessing. "I felt that Eric would make a great congressman," says Bliley, from his West End home. "Since that time, he's taken off like a rocket. He's given me an inferiority complex. In one term, he advanced farther than I did in my career."

ne indicator of a congressman's power is the committees he serves on. In the hallowed halls of the Capitol, there is an unofficial caste system of committees. Some are more important than others. Cantor quickly found his way to the highest rungs of the committee cachet ladder. After serving on the House Financial Services Committee and the House International Relations Committee, he "won," as they say in politics, a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, responsible for taxes, trade, Medicare, prescription drugs for seniors, health care and welfare reform, and Social Security, making Cantor, the only Virginian on the committee, a very important man.

But even important congressmen have to face re-election. And it always makes Cantor nervous. Regardless of post or opponent, he approaches every election as if he's running against a Kennedy. Intending to keep his congressional seat, he raised nearly $2.5 million to run against a lone independent candidatein 2004. But there's more to winning an election than filling campaign coffers, which has never been a problem for Cantor.

"Congressman Bliley used to say, 'You need to keep in touch with constituents,'" says Cantor, who puts his mentor's advice to work almost every week. He regularly goes on "reconnection tours" around the state. And when he is in Richmond, he schedules time to meet with constituents who have requests or complaints or other concerns. Some want money; some want action of a sort. Whatever the circumstance, someone is always coming through the door in search of Cantor's support.

On a Friday morning in March, Cantor has made it through a torrential downpour to his Innsbrook office. So has Virginia Russell. As the district representative of the National Silver Haired Congress (NSHC), Russell has come to report to Cantor, whose office provides some funding for Russell's participation in the eighth annual conference of the NSHC.

After exchanging familiar pleasantries, Russell gets to the meat of the meeting. She hands Cantor a list of five initiatives that the National Silver Haired Congress would like to see addressed in Congress. Cantor removes his glasses and respectfully ponders the list while Russell explains each one. More funding for the Older Americans Act ... health care reform ... no surprises. But Cantor graciously listens as if he's hearing it all for the first time. Using a yellow highlighter, he underlines parts as he reads along.

The conversation turns to Social Security reform. The NSHC wants income tax on Social Security benefits to be eliminated. "I watch the things on TV when they have two sides," Russell says, acknowledging that she knows at least two sides of the Social Security issue. Then comes Cantor with the velvet glove. He explains the entire argument for reform, beginning with "When Roosevelt started Social Security 70 years ago ... there used to be 16 workers for every ...," then the statistic everyone understands, if not believes: "Without Social Security reform, government spending — now at 18 percent — will go up to 40 percent."

He's patient, he's sweet. But he's not soft. Russell has come here as a delegate, and he takes her seriously. When it's all over, Cantor has reassured Russell without committing to anything other than to do his job. With a pat on the back, he returns her papers to her and walks her into the office's wee lobby, where the next constituent waits.

During a short breather, Cantor says that constituent days are more wearing than they might appear. Sometimes, holding the party line means going head-on with your own heart. Cantor hears frequently from grass-roots organizations on certain issues. Take the stem cell debate. "The juvenile diabetes people come in at least once a year, maybe twice," he says. "They bring their kids with their [insulin] pumps. Your heart goes out to these people."

On this issue, as on all others, he supports the president's position. But every year, he welcomes the Juvenile Diabetes Association and others like it, even though he knows he's going to disappoint them when the vote comes. Until the president budges on stem cell research, Cantor, too, will stand firm. "But I'm always listening," he says.

He's listening, too, to the persistent buzz about his political potential. Speaking of party lines, if you ask (a) his wife or (b) anyone who works for him about his aspirations, they are ready with the trademark phrase used by ambitious politicians throughout history: "He is focused on doing the best job he can as a congressman."

Best stick to the party line. S

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