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Newt Gingrich: King Of The Hill But If Polls Are Any Indicator, House Speaker Has Yet To Sway Public

One day this week, the president of Egypt paid a courtesy call on Capitol Hill. As House Speaker Newt Gingrich hurried outside to greet him, a 7 1/2-year-old tourist spotted the celebrity.

“Hey, Newt,” he called, waving an arm, jumping up and down. “Hey, Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!”

Not everyone loves him, but can anyone imagine a kid shouting upon seeing Tom Foley or Jim Wright or even Sam Rayburn?

Speakers of the House don’t normally generate excitement. Nor would it ever have occurred to them to request television time for an address to the nation, as Gingrich is doing tonight. Just like a president.

Few politicians outside of the White House have become so dominant so fast as Gingrich, or so capable of taking the agenda-setting role away from the president.

In under 100 days, Gingrich has turned a job that was always internally powerful within the Capitol into a national office, externally powerful - even if he has yet to overcome the country’s wariness.

Overriding seniority, he installed his own loyalists as chairmen. The Gingrich agenda became the congressional agenda. In the process, Gingrich often outraged Democrats and sometimes roughed up fellow Republicans.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., only reluctantly went along with this week’s tax cuts, which he wanted scaled down in deference to the deficit. “We’ve boxed ourselves in and that’s unfortunate,” he chafed.

Gingrich, once a backbencher with no legislative record to speak of, brought single-minded attention to his task as speaker. He spoke like a visionary while offering raw meat to the conservative faithful, and that helps account for his dominance.

His timing was crucial: He came along to capitalize on the frustration of Republicans who had endured 40 years as an ignored minority in a majority-rules world.

His striking appearance and personality helped. His willingness to throw out an idea today and fish it back tomorrow was arresting, and kept attention on him.

Important, too, was his own high-energy national campaign to elect a Republican House. He helped bring into office 73 Republican freshmen, a band of loyalists.

The country’s mood played a role. The same anger that helped account for Ross Perot’s strength played into Gingrich’s hand.

The election results demonstrated that the general ideas in Gingrich’s “Contract With America” were acceptable - less federal intrusion, diffusion of power to the states, less largess for the welfare-dependent.

Gingrich benefited, too, from Clinton’s wounded withdrawal after the election.

He was fresh, interesting, newsworthy; he had something to say.

By the end of March, the big three TV networks devoted 114 stories to him and only 33 to the second most visible member of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. The Associated Press carried 1,033 stories mentioning Gingrich from the time he became speaker to the start of this week. In the comparable period in the last Congress, Speaker Foley was mentioned in 108.

“Gingrich is willing to risk some of his own popularity for the sake of asserting leadership on a larger issue,” says congressional expert Michael J. Malbin of the State University of New York at Albany. “He wants to accomplish something - nothing less than a major reshaping of the way people think about government.”

And no matter whether the “Contract With America” was master stroke or mere gimmick, it gave the Republican majority an agenda. At a time in politics when personality is said to be paramount to platform, substance mattered, for once.

It may appear that Gingrich burst onto the scene in January, but actually he had been riding - and stirring up - a wave of Republican unrest for a decade.

Defeated in his first two races for Congress and almost defeated for re-election in 1990, he spent years derided as a noisemaker. He initiated the ethics charges that ultimately caused Wright to quit as speaker.

Gingrich’s climb started with a two-vote victory for Republican whip - as a challenger to the go-along, getalong attitude of senior Republicans. He probably would have tackled one of them, GOP Leader Bob Michel, had Michel not retired at the end of the last Congress.

An odd aspect of the Gingrich phenomenon is that for all his success steering the “Contract” through the House, the public remains skeptical.

Partly that may be due to ethical issues Democrats have raised - the renounced $4.5 million book contract and the financing of the college course he taught.

And partly the Republicans may have reached too far. “People just don’t like cutting education, school lunches and food stamps. And they’re pretty skeptical about the idea of cutting taxes,” says Benjamin Page, a public opinion specialist at Northwestern University.

Thus polling suggests the speaker has yet to win the backing of even half the public. At the end of March, 44 percent approved of the way he was handling his job and 37 percent disapproved.

Even here, Gingrich can claim uniqueness. Not only do kids jump up and down when they see him, he’s the first speaker whose performance has come to be routinely measured by the pollsters.

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