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Being Tom DeLay means never having to say you're sorry. So when the embattled House majority leader apologized last week for the "inartful" way in which he attacked the federal judiciary after Terri Schiavo's death, it was the surest indicator that DeLay's days are numbered.

DeLay is not in trouble because Democrats are trying to get rid of him. On the contrary, Democrats would like nothing better than to have a weakened DeLay right where he is through the 2006 elections. That's why Republicans are so nervous.

For years, Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to make DeLay a symbol of the Republican Party's iron control of the House, of big-money fund-raising and influence peddling, of what the Democrats see as social issue extremism. But DeLay was not a big deal for voters until he blasted himself across the nation's front pages with his lead role in the Schiavo case and his outbursts against federal judges -- "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

As one influential House Democrat put it, "DeLay did for us something we could never accomplish ourselves. He made himself a household name."

And having done so, DeLay set himself up as a target within his own party. It is not just moderate Republicans such as Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut who are raising questions about DeLay's tenure. Many at the heart of the conservative movement now have doubts about the Texas Republican's conduct, his ability to lead -- or, most devastatingly, both.

The Democrats' decision to take DeLay on has been compared with Newt Gingrich's assault on the ethics of former House Speaker Jim Wright. By forcing Wright to resign in 1989, Gingrich eventually propelled himself to the speakership.

The metaphor is apt for more than the obvious reasons. As Gingrich acknowledged, he opposed Wright in part because he saw the Texas Democrat as an impressive politician. Gingrich once said that Wright had the potential to "become the greatest speaker since Henry Clay."

As long as Democrats saw Wright in this light, his survival chances were high. DeLay's hopes are identical. The one thing Republicans have known about DeLay up to now is that he's been a hugely successful party leader. DeLay's strategy, like Wright's, is to dismiss attacks as partisan assaults on his effectiveness.

The emphasis on fidelity to strong leadership worked for Wright for a while. One of Wright's loyalists, former Rep. Charles Wilson, condemned "yellow-belly, turncoat" Democrats who questioned Wright's ethics. Wilson made his comment on April 14, 1989. Six weeks later, Wright announced his resignation. Over time, Gingrich's attacks so weakened Wright that Democrats wearied of defending him and came to see him more as liability than asset.

DeLay has one thing going for him that Wright did not: politics is more ferociously partisan now than it was in 1989. That means DeLay can enforce party discipline to a degree Wright could never hope to manage. The growth of a new conservative opinion industry means that "yellow-belly turncoats" inside the GOP face assault not only from their colleagues, but also from partisan commentators, talk show hosts and Web sites.

But DeLay made another critical error that may reduce the effectiveness even of this vast machinery. He chose to assail judges at the very moment when his Republican colleagues in the Senate are preparing for a legendary face-off over the filibustering of Bush's judicial appointments. The last thing Senate Republican leaders need now is to have to defend not only their "nuclear option" but also Tom DeLay.

That explains why DeLay was forced to say he was sorry -- and why it will take a miracle for him to survive.

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