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The Leader

Virginia's Eric Cantor has risen fast-and the sky's the limit.

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By FRED BARNES
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A few weeks after Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia was elected to a second term in the House of Representatives in 2002, he got a phone call from Roy Blunt, the Republican whip and third-ranking member of the House leadership. Cantor figured his wish had come true and he was getting a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Before he ran for Congress, he helped run the family's real estate development firm in Richmond and his chief policy interest was in taxes and financial affairs, precisely what the committee deals with.

But Blunt had a different offer, one that would lift Cantor from obscurity as a Republican backbencher to a leadership position in the House. The job Blunt had in mind was chief deputy whip, the number four position in the Republican chain of command. Cantor was stunned at the offer and said he'd have to consult his wife. But it was all but certain he'd say yes, he told Blunt. And he soon did.

Cantor, 44, is energetic, popular, and respected--the attributes necessary for congressional leadership. As well as he's done, Cantor could have climbed even further in the Republican hierarchy by now. Had he challenged Blunt for whip last fall, he probably would have won. Instead, by doing the honorable thing and aggressively supporting his mentor, Cantor guaranteed Blunt's reelection.

Cantor's ascent seems inevitable. He is likely to become the top Republican in the House--which means speaker, if Republicans regain control--when the current leaders, John Boehner and Blunt, step down. That is, if he stays in the House.

The retirement of Republican John Warner has created an open Senate seat in Virginia. Democrat Mark Warner, a well-liked ex-governor, is the favorite over either of the two likely Republican candidates, Northern Virginia congressman Tom Davis and former governor Jim Gilmore. The Warner camp is reported to have conducted a poll showing Cantor as Warner's strongest opponent and Republican officials have talked to him about running. Cantor says he has no intention of seeking the Senate seat, but he hasn't entirely ruled it out.

Should Cantor run, it would be an enormous loss to House Republicans. The party has an impressive group of young guns (members under 45) and, fortunately for Republicans, their ranks weren't depleted in the disastrous 2006 election. Of the group, Cantor is furthest along the leadership track. To use a sports analogy, he's the most valuable player.

Adam Putnam, 33, of Florida is another young gun on the rise. He's chairman of the Republican conference and a potential rival of Cantor for a top leadership post. But Putnam is the protégé of ex-Speaker Denny Hastert, who is retiring, and Cantor has the edge. Cantor, by the way, is the only Jewish Republican in the House.

In the leadership race last fall, Cantor's loyalty to Blunt was a matter of obligation. Cantor hadn't been the choice of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Hastert when Blunt picked him as deputy whip in 2002. DeLay wanted Blunt to name Todd Tiahrt of Kansas. (Kay Granger of Texas and Mike Rogers of Michigan were also campaigning for the post.)

Soon after he got to Washington, Cantor had sought out Blunt and became a confidant and a member of the whip team. "Roy was a guy I could always turn to," Cantor says. He worked closely with Blunt's senior aides, Mildred Webber and Greg Hartley, who became admirers of Cantor. "He's so humble," says Webber. "He's not high and mighty. And he's a very good listener. He tries to put the members' interests first."

When DeLay resigned from Congress in spring 2006, Blunt and Boehner competed to replace him. Since Blunt had a good chance of winning, Cantor quickly sized up his chances to succeed him as whip. Roughly two-thirds of House Republicans indicated they'd support him. But Blunt lost to Boehner and stayed in the whip's job.

After Democrats captured the House last November, Hastert stepped down as Republican leader and both Boehner and Blunt faced challenges from disgruntled members. Cantor was pressured to run against Blunt. Several House Republicans, including Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and Devin Nunes of California, openly endorsed him. Even Boehner urged him to run, insisting that Cantor had no obligation to back Blunt. Cantor, however, felt he did. Boehner still would like to see Cantor as whip.

Cantor's interest in politics came from his father, Eddie, who'd grown up on the second floor of the family grocery store and built both a law practice and real estate firm in Richmond. Eddie Cantor was a close friend of Dick Obenshain, a Republican leader as the party grew rapidly in Virginia in the 1970s. The elder Cantor was treasurer of the Reagan campaign in Virginia in 1980.