WASHINGTON (AP) -- House Republicans gathered Wednesday to hear pitches from candidates vying to be their new leaders as conservatives hoped they wouldn't be shut out of a top spot.
"What we need right now is a strong leader, someone who listens to us," said Rep. Randy Hultgren of Illinois, as he entered the closed door GOP meeting in a Capitol basement meeting room. The contest for the No. 3 spot in the House GOP has turned into conservatives' last, best shot at joining the congressional leadership after getting shut out of the two top jobs in the shake-up that followed Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise primary defeat.
It has become an intense intramural clash with no certain outcome, as two candidates from different ideological outposts and regions of the country - a conservative Southerner and an establishment-aligned Midwesterner - are challenged by a third who could play the role of spoiler for tea party hopes.
All three - Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana - were set to make their case to rank-and-file Republicans ahead of a vote by the party caucus on Thursday.
The job they're vying for is majority whip, likely to become vacant because its current occupant, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, is the strong favorite to become the new majority leader in a separate vote, if he staves off a longshot challenge from conservative Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.
The whip position is perhaps little known outside Washington - or at least was before Kevin Spacey's scheming portrayal on the Netflix program "House of Cards" - but it entails lining up the votes to ensure victory for the party's legislative agenda. And in this case, the contest itself has come to dramatize the deep feud within the GOP that pits conservative purists against lawmakers more aligned with the Republican establishment.
In Cantor's primary election in Virginia last week, the purists won. A virtually unknown insurgent, economics professor Dave Brat, defied all predictions to beat the majority leader, who then announced his resignation from his leadership post. The establishment quickly struck back, maintaining its hold on the top two slots in the House as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio remained unchallenged and McCarthy moved swiftly to all but cement his ascent.
That left the whip job likely up for grabs and the focus of a charged campaign.
If there is a front-runner, it might be Scalise, 48, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House and hails from the red-state South, a regional and political perspective that's now missing in House leadership and that many Southerners, and others, say is needed. Scalise is presenting himself as a strong conservative but one who can work with establishment-aligned leaders, not just throw bombs.
"We've proven you can pass conservative policy that unites our conference," Scalise said Tuesday evening after meeting with Pennsylvania Republicans to make his pitch. "Because I think there was some feeling for a while that there was a conflict between the two, that it was either one or the other. And we've shown that there's a different way you can do this."
Roskam, 52, now serves as McCarthy's chief deputy and can make the case that he already knows the job and can count votes. To counter the regional argument, he's promised to appoint a red-state lawmaker as his own chief deputy.
"There is a heroic majority here, there is a majority in our conference that wants to move forward and do great things, and I want to be part of trying to bring that out," Roskam said after his own meeting with Pennsylvania lawmakers. He dismissed concerns about his conservative bona fides, noting he'd won election to the House in 2006, a tough year for Republicans when Democrats took back the House.
"I am a conservative who won in suburban Chicago in 2006 as a conservative through and through," Roskam said.
Stutzman, 37, was a late entrant into the contest and is presenting himself as a fresh face, supported by some tea party figures in the House and some allies who, like him, were elected in the GOP wave election of 2010. He's staked out less support than either Roskam or Scalise and some fear a scenario where he splits the conservative vote with Scalise, opening a path for Roskam.
If no candidate gets an outright majority in Thursday's secret ballot - that would be 117 if all GOP lawmakers vote - the lowest vote-getter will be eliminated and ballots recast between the top two finishers.