Win or lose, Newt Gingrich stays on top

November 04, 1994|By Karen Hosler Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Forget counting the ballots in Tuesday's elections. One winner is already certain. With the face of a cherub and what many suspect is the soul of Machiavelli, Newt Gingrich, leader-in-waiting of the once-powerless House Republicans, is blasting into the American consciousness as the celebrity du jour.

His chubby cheeks adorn the cover of Time magazine this week, the first time in a decade that a member of Congress has risen to that level of attention.

As chief architect of a take-no-prisoners political style that is expected to result in big Republican gains in Congress, Mr. Gingrich has zoomed past Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas -- known inside the Beltway as Darth Vadar -- as the man Democrats love to hate.

During Mr. Gingrich's 16-year congressional career, the 51-year-old former college professor from Georgia has toppled one Democratic House speaker in an ethics investigation, undermined the leadership of another by making hay out of a rubber-check scandal, devised a strategy that stopped much of President Clinton's legislative agenda in its tracks this year and encouraged House members to heap contempt on Congress as though they weren't part of it.

"He's made people think all politicians are awful people," said Carlton Carl, press secretary for Rep. John Bryant, a Texas Democrat who tangled with Mr. Gingrich this year. "Even Bob Dole isn't that mean."

Even if the midterm elections do not give House Republicans a majority that would make Mr. Gingrich speaker -- and third in line to the presidency -- the radical reformer will become one of the most influential figures in Washington.

"He's almost a Shakespearean kind of personality," said David Mason, congressional affairs analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

Deliberately outrageous in a land of gray-suit caution, Mr. Gingrich is regarded as a political savior, brilliant tactician and demonic force, "sometimes by the same people," Mr. Mason added. "It's very clear he will be the most visible person in the next Congress."

This is no mean accomplishment, given that House Republicans are likely to retain their place at the bottom of the Washington pecking order behind the White House, the Senate, and the Democratic House majority.

But Mr. Gingrich as leader of the House Republicans in the next session of Congress is positioned to be a power broker.

The Georgian has led his forces with the precision of a drum major and the strong arm of a Mafia don. Whether as speaker or minority leader, he will be able to make life-or-death decisions over Mr. Clinton's legislative agenda. It will be largely his decision whether the order of the day is confrontation or cooperation.

"His temptation is going to be to continue the in-your-face style of the campaign, rather than extend the olive branch and actually try to govern," said Rep. Fred Grandy, an Iowa Republican who is retiring. "He's already the most prominent talking head on Capitol Hill. To be the most powerful figure, he has to govern."

'Contract with America'

Mr. Gingrich's "Contract with America," a political device to aid Republican candidates, does not qualify as governing, Mr. Grandy said. The contract promises to put to a House vote such issues as term limits and a balanced budget amendment, two ideas that are thought to have wide popular appeal.

If the GOP captures the House, Mr. Gingrich told supporters, he would create a committee to investigate alleged corruption in the Clinton administration. He also would hire an accounting firm to audit the House books for the past decade of Democratic rule.

"I don't know why in Washington they have this attitude that I'm a bomb-thrower," Mr. Gingrich quipped recently at a Towson fund-raiser for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, one of the 125 Republican House candidates he has stumped for. "Think about what that tells you about Washington: I tell the truth, and in Washington it's a bomb."

Hell-raiser rhetoric from their leader delights the conservative Republicans Mr. Grandy calls "Newtistas," who are bitter at how House Republicans have been rolled during four decades of Democratic rule.

"The Democrats liked it when we were a good, quiet minority," said Rep. Bill Paxon, a New York Republican who advanced on the Gingrich fast track after only four years in office to become chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee.

Now Mr. Paxon is helping Mr. Gingrich strong-arm Republican incumbents for cash donations of up to $50,000 to aid new GOP challengers. Mr. Paxon also is threatening Southern Democrats with extinction if they don't change parties and help build a Republican majority.

Moderate Republicans tend to be wary of the Gingrich era. Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County chose not to discuss her party's new leader until after Election Day. Some Democrats are horrified at what the future might bring.

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