By Chris Matthews Host of 'Hardball'
msnbc.com
updated 4/4/2006 4:14:38 PM ET 2006-04-04T20:14:38

Late Monday night just before 10 p.m. ET, Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, called me on my cell phone to let me know that he would be withdrawing from his re-election race.  I called MSNBC and broke the news live in a phone interview.

Here's what DeLay told me:

He said that even though he thought he had a "50-50 chance" of winning reelection, he predicted he would take "a beating between now and November."

He said the bad trend in his polls of last fall was continuing.

Politicians say they don't pay attention to polls, but they do. DeLay thought that his bad numbers would be "very hard to reverse."  He explained his dropping out of the race by saying that "any Republican except him would walk into the seat." He told me he believed it was very important for Republicans to hold his seat.

As for his own future, he said he had "a great amount of support from conservative organizations" in Washington.  "I can be of help to these organizations.  I can use my talents and my leadership in that area."

DeLay's bombshell came just days after his lobbyist friend Jack Abramoff was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison for a matter involving a Florida casino. It also came in the wake of well-publicized plea arrangements being made by former DeLay staffers Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy.

DeLay himself is under indictment by a Democratic prosecutor in Texas for arranging to have corporate campaign contributions deployed to state legislative races in Texas.

Back in January, I interviewed DeLay in his district in Texas.  I asked him whether he needed an acquittal on this charge before the election to clear the air.  He said, "Oh, I would like one, but my constituents know what's going on here. They've looked at this case. They understand it.  They've been very, very supportive. They know what Ronnie Earle is -- a runaway district attorney who is abusing his power, indicting me on laws that don't exist. They understand what this is all about.  And it's also supported by all these leftist groups that are in here right now. The backlash is in my favor."

Two months later, that backlash by conservative voters has failed to show itself in voter polls in DeLay's congressional district.  As he told me Monday night, his polling shows a worsening trend.

For Democrats, DeLay's decision is a mixed blessing. They can claim victory over one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, but they lose a public enemy who could have been exploited to rally Democrats to the ballot box.

By walking off the field, DeLay may have saved his party a handful of seats.  In 2006 that could make the difference between the Republicans keeping the House and losing it.

The big question in Washington is whether Tom DeLay's withdrawal could have any effect on a president with major poll problems of his own.

In the midst of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the Dubai Ports deal, congressional Republicans could pay a price for the president's unpopularity.  DeLay's departure could offset some Democrat victories in the midterm elections come November.  For President Bush, the loss of the House would weaken a second term that already requires intensive care.

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