Speaker race shapes up as a free-for-all Republican Party seeks leader to project kinder, more cooperative image

Back-stabbing intrigue

Gingrich makes it official: He'll leave Congress after defeat

November 08, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republican officials struggled yesterday to find a new House leader who could present a more compassionate and cooperative face for their party in the wake of disastrous election returns that led Newt Gingrich to step down as speaker.

In his first public statement since informing fellow Republicans that he was quitting, Gingrich officially revealed that he was seeking to leave Congress as well.

"As a practical matter, for me to stay in the House would make it impossible for a new leader to have a chance to grow, to learn and to do what they need to do," Gingrich told reporters camped outside his suburban Atlanta home.

"And I think there comes a time when you've got to step out and let a new team take over, let a new team try to do the best they can."

He said he would seek "the opportunity to do a little learning and maybe even make a little money."

The race to succeed Gingrich has all the makings of a free-for-all. For four years, the controversial Georgian has been a larger-than-life figure, personifying the Republican Party, dominating the news media's attention, and shaping the party's image like no speaker in history.

His confrontational style and sweeping ideals at once made him a hero to many Republicans and a whipping boy for Democrats. He could raise millions of dollars for Republican candidates, yet earn the contempt of huge swaths of the public.

It was that lightning-rod quality that was Gingrich's ultimate undoing. After the GOP's surprisingly poor showing Nov. 3, rank-and-file Republicans feared that the party could never get beyond Gingrich's negative image to expand its congressional majority or recapture the White House.

The back-stabbing intrigue was only beginning when Gingrich decided to call it quits at 4: 30 Friday afternoon.

"I could hardly stand by and allow the party to cannibalize itself and I felt it was best for all of us," Gingrich said yesterday, after taking out the trash and hugging a neighbor. "I don't think anybody should be a distraction."

At least two formidable candidates have emerged to replace him, with Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, cementing his front-runner status yesterday with the endorsement of Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the No. 3 House Republican.

4 The other is Rep. Christopher Cox of California.

Anther contender, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, backed out of the contest for what he called "the highest office of the legislative branch."

In declining to run, Archer -- a soft-spoken elder statesman from Texas -- pleaded yesterday for the political establishment from both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to put partisanship aside and work together.

After a tumultuous four years with Gingrich at the helm and doctrinaire conservatives in charge, "inclusiveness" is the new watchword.

"Our nation seeks leaders who will put principles before politics, ideas before ambition," Archer said.

"I say that in reference to the president of the United States, the speaker of the House, and the minority leader of the House," he said, thanking President Clinton for his gracious farewell to Gingrich but castigating House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt for a gloating, negative statement after Gingrich's resignation announcement.

Gephardt did echo GOP calls for a more cooperative, less partisan House, but he could not resist a dig at Gingrich, who had made a career of hounding Democrats mercilessly.

"I hope that whoever succeeds Newt Gingrich as speaker will immediately begin the process of repairing the damage that was wrought on this institution over the last four years. It is critically important that the next speaker has a stronger sense of respect for the institution of the House and for members on the other side of the aisle," Gephardt said, referring to his own Democratic Party.

Archer called that "the wrong tone at the wrong time."

Though Republicans have been far more gracious to their fallen leader, they too are seeking a change -- or perhaps a return to the pre-Gingrich era, when quiet, consensus-building conservatives such as retired Rep. Robert H. Michel and former Sen. Bob Dole dominated the party.

"We're making a decision to revert to an earlier leadership style," said Vin Weber, a former House member from Minnesota and close friend of Gingrich's.

After Clinton delivered a radio address outlining new gun control measures, Republicans issued not so much a response as a plea for comity. To deliver that appeal, the GOP tapped the ultimate fresh face, Greg Walden, an Oregon businessman elected to Congress just five days ago.

"Mr. President, I ask you to join us in dedicating the next two years to real honest-to-goodness problem-solving where we debate policy, not personalities, where we recognize our differences in philosophy but work together for solutions," Walden said.

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