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COLUMN ONE : Gingrich: At Long Last, Power : In a Democrat’s nightmare come true, the former gadfly is in line to be the GOP’s top congressman--with hopes of leading his party’s first majority in decades.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officially, Newt Gingrich’s tenure as his party’s leader in the House does not begin until the new Congress takes office in January. But in many ways, the Gingrich Era has already dawned.

With the Capitol Dome against a clear blue sky as a backdrop, the combative Georgia Republican last week led 300 GOP incumbents and challengers in signing what they described as their Contract with America. It is a 10-point program of proposed legislation--largely unfinished business of the Reagan Revolution--that the Republicans promise to enact if they win control of the House this November.

A GOP majority is something that body has not seen since the 1950s. Not a single Republican now serving has wielded the gavel during a session of the House, or even presided over the most lowly of subcommittees.

A Republican takeover of the House is still a longshot. But for the first time in decades, no one is laughing off the possibility.

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If Republicans do win a majority of the 435 seats, it will be thanks, in no small measure, to public disgust for Congress--a political brush fire that Gingrich has stoked throughout his 16 years as a legislator. Or, as the would-be Speaker put it: “I’ve spent much of my career reporting accurately on a Congress that’s worthy of being despised.”

At a minimum, a soured electorate appears poised to give the GOP enough additional seats for the fire-breathing Gingrich and his forces to forge a working majority on many close issues.

The prospect has sent shudders up and down the Democratic ranks, and would seem to represent Bill Clinton’s worst nightmare. But as Gingrich steps closer to center stage, some of his colleagues believe that they are seeing--could it be?--a kinder, gentler Newt.

Indeed, if the Gingrich acolytes who make up the current crop of freshman Republicans have any complaint about their hero and role model, it is summed up by Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy): “At times, as a member of the leadership, Gingrich is softer than a lot of the freshmen want him to be.”

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Soft? Newt Gingrich? The man who once called Bob Dole “the tax collector of the welfare state?”

“He’s absolutely shifted gears significantly in the last year,” said Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), a onetime rival for the top House GOP post whose 1993 ouster from the leadership was engineered by Gingrich. In Gingrich’s view, the affable and well-regarded Lewis represented the old-style Republican--the kind whose pragmatism and noblesse oblige would keep GOP House members in the shadow of the Democrats forever.

But now that he is the second-ranking Republican and heir apparent to the minority leader’s job being vacated by retiring Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), Gingrich is confronting the realities of heading a party that still is 40 votes short of a majority in the House, and probably will remain at least 15 behind.

If Gingrich is to get anything done, Lewis pointed out, he will need at least a handful of conservatives and moderates on the other side of the aisle.

In their private dealings, the Democratic leadership with which Gingrich will have to work has already seen a shift.

“He does tend to be very constructive in meetings. He’s very different from his image outside,” one top aide said.

To the surprise of many Democrats, Gingrich proved a formidable--and reliable--ally in President Clinton’s uphill battle last year for approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“His word was good. He worked hard,” said Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who helped lead the effort from the Democratic side.

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“He’s been like a Jekyll and Hyde,” Richardson added. “When he decides to be bipartisan, he is bipartisan, but then he also has the capability of wanting to tear down the institution. The real Newt Gingrich is still unclear. I don’t think he’s decided what his strategy is.”

Last summer’s monumental battle over crime legislation was perhaps the ultimate illustration of Gingrich’s ability to play it both ways. He rallied his troops to a near-unanimous stand against the Clinton crime bill that almost killed it on a procedural vote. But in the second round, he risked the wrath of many Republicans by giving political cover to the group of GOP moderates who negotiated the deal with the White House that saved the bill. Thus, he played a role in handing Clinton his biggest congressional victory in what was an otherwise dismal year.

“All of the Republicans who were against the (assault) weapons ban were livid, because it meant the bill would succeed,” said Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), who favored the legislation.

At first, Gingrich brushed off suggestions that he has mellowed, saying he’s merely getting older--he’s 51--and warning: “I’m told that at a later point in my life, I become more irascible.”

But then he turned to aide Tony Blankley and asked: “I’m kind of curious about this. Do you think I’ve significantly changed?”

“You pause before you act,” Blankley replied.

After pondering the question himself for a moment, Gingrich concluded: “One thing that really has changed is I’ve learned to listen a lot more than I did 10 years ago, or even five years ago. . . . When I was younger, I was a back bencher, and to get heard at all, you had to virtually scream.”

Indeed, the driving force in his life has been making himself heard. Gingrich’s personal epiphany took place when he was 15--fittingly enough, on the World War I battlefield of Verdun, a name synonymous with pointless bloodshed. As he pondered the artillery damage still evident 42 years later, he remembered thinking “that civilizations are easily put at risk, and that the quality of leadership is a big factor in whether or not they survive.”

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His adoptive father’s Army career, which had brought the family to Europe, would next take them to Georgia. In 1960, Gingrich recalled, it was the most Democratic state in the country--having voted even more heavily for John F. Kennedy than Massachusetts.

To Gingrich’s mind, it seemed infinitely fertile territory.

He even spelled out his life’s plan to a high school teacher in Stuttgart, Germany. “I would go to Georgia, help create a Republican Party, and win a national office,” he recalled saying.

Gingrich was elected to Congress in 1978, on his third try, but it was not his big ideas that carried the day. He was far behind when he learned that his female opponent was planning to commute to Washington, leaving her family in Georgia. He quickly came up with a new campaign slogan, one that resonated in the traditional South: “When elected, Newt will keep his family together.”

What happened when he got to Washington, however, was the sort of contradiction that Gingrich’s critics love: Within two years, he had divorced his wife of 18 years. (That marriage produced two daughters. Gingrich soon married his current wife, Marianne.)

If his legislative record is to be judged by the important laws that he has written, suffice it to say that Gingrich’s is virtually zip. But it would be hard to find a figure in the last decade who has caused more upheaval in how the House does business. These days, it often seems that it is no longer such a leap from Gingrich’s childhood ambition of being a zookeeper to his current one of being Speaker.

To look at him, the doughy former history professor with the blow-dried helmet of white hair would have seemed an unlikely slayer of the old order. Imagine a Kewpie-doll version of Phil Donahue with a voice that sounds like it is on fast-forward.

In the early 1980s, Gingrich and a small band of frustrated conservative Republicans seized upon a way to bypass the Democratic gatekeepers who kept GOP legislation from seeing daylight and present their agenda directly to millions of Americans. Every afternoon, after the House had adjourned, they would take to the floor and rail for hours before the TV cameras that were reaching a growing audience on C-Span.

Gingrich went from being a minor irritant to a chronic pain to then-Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill (D-Mass.). Then came the day in 1984 when O’Neill could take it no longer. His voice thundered across the House chamber as he called Gingrich’s behavior “the lowest thing that I have seen in my 32 years in Congress.”

O’Neill was formally disciplined for violating a House floor ban on making personal attacks on fellow members--believed to be the first time that had happened to a Speaker since the 1790s. Republicans quickly aired TV ads about the incident; Gingrich was their hero.

The wound he inflicted on O’Neill’s successor was a mortal one. It was Gingrich’s complaint that opened an Ethics Committee investigation against Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), and it was largely his persistence that kept that issue in front of the public. Ultimately, Wright was forced to resign in 1989, and a grateful Republican Caucus lifted Gingrich from his unofficial post of chief gadfly to party whip, their party’s second-ranking post.

Gingrich’s own ethics have come under no small degree of scrutiny; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee maintains at least six file drawers of information on both his public and private life against the day that they might have an opportunity to do to Gingrich what he did to Wright.

The latest controversy centers on what the Atlanta Constitution has called Gingrich’s “unprecedented multimillion-dollar political empire.” Gingrich has become the human equivalent of ITT--a walking conglomerate, with a political action committee, a televised college course called “Renewing American Civilization,” a cable talk show and his very own think tank.

The sources of funds for this network are murky. His political action committee, GOPAC, has refused to disclose its donor list, which Gingrich says is legal under a loophole in federal law. The Federal Election Commission is suing, and Gingrich’s long-shot Democratic opponent, former congressman and “Dukes of Hazzard” star Ben Jones, has lodged a complaint with the Ethics Committee.

Gingrich’s 10-week college course had to be moved from a public to a private institution after it was revealed that GOPAC helped organize and design it. Moreover, he was criticized for using the course to plug some of his large donors and their corporations.

“It’s a huge issue, one that’s not going to go away,” challenger Jones said of the ethical questions that are swirling around Gingrich. “He’s using this district as a means to an end--and that end is his own ideological agenda and his own personal ambition.”

For now, however, the accusations and insinuations have yet to stick. Gingrich and his allies say that the criticism amounts to little more than partisan sniping and insist that his outside organizations are merely a means of getting his ideas to a larger forum.

A voracious reader, Gingrich draws those ideas from sources that range from management guru Peter Drucker to futurist Alvin Toffler. Ask Gingrich about his agenda for the long haul, and his street-fighter bluntness gives way to frothy jargon that sounds New Age enough for a Nike commercial.

“We’re really about inventing an information-age, third-wave, world-market-oriented society, which is a replacement for a bureaucratic, second-wave, national-market, welfare state,” he said, adding: “Getting people so that they get the rhythm of that is weird.”

The flag-waving extravaganza last week on the Capitol steps was a move in that direction. Yet even many Republicans wonder whether tying locally elected candidates to the broad national platform outlined in the contract--including such ideas as a balanced-budget amendment, line-item veto and a defense buildup--could backfire.

All of the items on that agenda have at least 60% support in the polls, Gingrich contends. But Lewis, among others, noted that some of the items--such as cuts in agricultural programs--could be controversial in local areas.

Given the fact that the most crucial fall election battles will be closely fought in swing districts, “already, there’s no doubt Democrats are licking their chops,” Lewis said. “National themes are great for symbolism, but many a district doesn’t fit that mold.”

And for some GOP incumbents the contract presents awkward contradictions. Gingrich, for instance, finds himself advocating that no House member be allowed to serve more than six terms--even as he runs for his ninth.

Asked to explain the apparent double-standard on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he declined to say directly whether he would step down if the term-limits proposal became a reality.

“The notion that everybody who’s for something has to offer to commit suicide in order for you to think they’re sincere, I think is fairly outrageous,” Gingrich said.

Although Democrats have promised to hang the contract on vulnerable candidates in the fall elections, many of the GOP’s young warriors say the commitment to a single agenda is just what the party needs if it is to shake its permanent minority mentality. “The Republicans can’t just say no. We have to tell the American people what we’re for,” Pombo said.

Gingrich is instituting another change that is winning almost universal acclaim within his ranks: He is putting members on notice that if they want to hold senior positions, they must be willing to raise at least $50,000 each to help other GOP candidates win.

“What I said to them is real simple: If you want to be a chairman (which requires being a member of the majority party), you have to work like you’re going to be a chairman,” Gingrich said.

Lobbyists report that they are being hounded for contributions by GOP lawmakers who had never put the arm on them before.

Some Republicans found the new marching orders unsettling.

“When he asked me to raise this money, I said, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” recalled Johnson, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, the mother lode for hauling in special-interest money.

But she added that it has become easier as she has tailored her appeal, pointing out that she is “raising money for there to be a new direction in the Congress.”

Democrats, of course, point out that this “new direction” is being underwritten in the most traditional and discredited of manners--soliciting money from people whose financial interests are at stake. Indeed, hours after signing their contract, Republicans celebrated at a $500-a-plate fund-raiser.

“The Democratic Party uses soft money, labor unions, trial lawyers, anything they can get their hands on,” Gingrich said. “For any of them to suggest that there’s some weird double-standard is silly. We had a standard fund-raising dinner--$500 a plate--which in a free-market economy is a legitimate way to raise money for a campaign.”

Gingrich said Republicans are willing to pitch in because they understand that this is truly a different kind of election year--as seen in a recent Gallup poll showing that for the first time since 1952, voters for two consecutive months have said that, in general, they would rather vote for a Republican than a Democrat.

“That suggests something--maybe something big--is going on,” Gingrich said.

But not big enough, he added, if it doesn’t fulfill his dream of a Republican majority in the House.

“To truly achieve the level of change we want, we have to have control,” he said. “I very, very much want to have the Ways and Means Committee holding hearings on Dick Armey’s (R-Tex.) flat tax. I very much want to have the Budget Committee insisting on the replacement of the (government’s) socialist accounting system with a free-market model. . . . I very much want the Judiciary Committee to have a hearing on school prayer in every state in the union in the first six months of next year.

“I don’t think anybody should think that we’re going to be happy if we get 25 seats,” the would-be Speaker concluded. “Until we get control, we don’t have control.”


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