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Nevertheless, people even some quite close to DeLay are surprised. "Got a nonspecific hint that he would be doing something high-profile," says Richard Cullen, one of his legal advisers, when asked if he knew of DeLay's plans. "But I would never have guessed this." Republican strategist and former DeLay spokesman John Feehery was also shocked but more that his ex-boss had been asked than that he accepted. "He likes to be in the middle of the action," Feehery says. "Politicians have this internal thing where they like to be the center of attention." DeLay doesn't deny that. "I've always enjoyed being in the limelight. At least that's what my wife says," he says with a chuckle.
It makes a difference that DeLay comes to the show as a fan. For many of the male contestants, the biggest stumbling block is what producers call the entourage factor: What will the guy's friends say? But DeLay had already outed himself when, in 2006, he e-mailed his supporters, urging them to vote for country star Sara Evans' "good American values" against Jerry Springer and his "smut" (to no avail, since Evans left the show voluntarily around the same time she announced her divorce).
That experience didn't seem to sour DeLay, who has begun his DWTS campaign with such vigor, you'd think the cast was stocked with Democrats instead of subaltern celebrities with at least a decade on him. Like fellow Season 9 contestants TV actress Melissa Joan Hart and model turned merchandise mogul Kathy Ireland, he has a Twitter feed about his progress. (So far he has 1,845 followers, more than competitor Ashley Hamilton's 240 but fewer than Osbourne's 120,000.) "Headed to the studio for my first rehearsal and to meet my partner. Hoping it's not Nancy Pelosi :)," he tweeted on Aug. 18. His website, TomDeLay.com is now almost politics-free and has been renamed Dancing with DeLay. "His distinguishing characteristic is that he works his butt off," says Feehery. Yep, that's happening too. He told Burke he'd lost 18 lb. (8 kg).
Inevitably there are those who see DeLay's quick step as part of an image-rehabilitation plan. "He's a student of history. He knows historians will be writing about the Republican revolution, and he wants to get a fair shake with people," says Jim Backlin, a former House leadership aide under DeLay. "He wants to let the TV audience see what his friends do that he's a decent guy with a sense of humor."
If rehabilitation is on his mind, DeLay's not admitting it. "Everybody's questioning my motives and asking, Have I thought about all this?" he says. "No. I'm just going to dance and have fun." But he has to know, as we all do, that stars don't end up on a reality show even a mainstream, wholesome one like DWTS at the height of their powers. Liddell is taking a break from fighting, Carter is trying to put some tabloid antics behind him, and Natalie Coughlin is a swimmer most recognizable when wearing a skull-hugging cap. They're on the show because they're looking for the next step or another chance.
It's nigh impossible to win an election while under indictment. After four years, DeLay still doesn't have a court date. His consulting business is not so consuming that he can't spare five hours a day to dance. So might this be a new chapter for the Hammer? "Since I left Congress, I've gone through several new chapters," he says. "I have no idea what my future holds." Perhaps he just wants to get on the floor again and fight for something. It's unlikely he'll prevail, but he will have gone down swinging.