OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Chastened?
Dispirited by the public's apparent loss of affection for him?
Not Newt Gingrich.
As he faces the election with no less than his political future on the line -- with nearly as much at stake as Bob Dole or President Clinton -- the House speaker is traveling the country with grenades in both hands, making no apologies for his combative style and attacking Democrats and the media with the fury of a man scorned.
Speaking at fund-raisers for congressional candidates around the country -- always in staunchly conservativedistricts -- the embattled and embittered Gingrich tells audiences that the White House is filled with a bunch of "drug addicts."
The president, he says, has engaged in corruption so profound that it threatens the nation's constitutional core. And, returning to the explosive rhetoric that seems as much a part of him as the white hair and cherubic shape, he pronounces Bill Clinton a liar.
"He and Gore both lied in the debates," Gingrich says in an interview, referring to the Democrats' discussion of Medicare. "I regard it as shameful that a president of the United States would lie to the American people and shameful that a party would build their entire campaign around falsehoods and fear."
This is full-potency Gingrich, and it reflects both his anger at the Democrats and the fact that this election is a defining moment for his leadership, and his legacy.
In many ways, in fact, this election is all about Newt. It is a referendum on the agenda for a scaled-back government that was spearheaded by Gingrich, a once-deified figure whose meteoric rise out of the 1994 election has been matched by his sudden fall.
With polls suggesting that Gingrich has become one of the most unpopular politicians in the country, Democrats can't mention his name enough. Clinton's ads refer to a two-headed monster, "DoleGingrich," and congressional candidates, like Judy Hancock in this district, feature sinister, grainy shots of Gingrich in mailers and ads.
"I'm the only figure in American history not running for president who's had 35,000 ads run against him," Gingrich says. "It's one of the prices of getting things done in Washington -- liberals defame you."
But if liberals are defaming him, Republicans in tight races or with swing voters as constituents are keeping their distance. Even such incumbents as Rep. John R. Kasich, a loyal Gingrich lieutenant, never mention Gingrich or the "Contract with America" as they campaign for re-election.
Some are going out of their way to stress their independence. "I am not a clone of Newt Gingrich," Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas said recently. "I've run on my own agenda."
And even as he assumes the role of hatchet man in the countdown days of the campaign, Gingrich has pointedly not been asked to hit the trail with, or on behalf of, Bob Dole.
"If I were running for president and I could choose between me and Colin Powell, I'd pick Colin Powell," Gingrich says, trying to put the best spin on it.
Safe in his own re-election, Gingrich, an effective fund-raiser, will have visited about 150 congressional districts by Election Day.
"They bring him in the back," says Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "The people who are going to come and write the checks are going to be in the room. They don't want him out on the street. But in terms of fund-raising, he can do that, and he does that very well for them."
His conservative audiences are, indeed, adoring, greeting him with shouts of "Newt! Newt!" and running up for autographs and photos. "I take great pleasure in being for Mr. Newt," says Chuck Vogt, a businessman here. "He's a classic American hero."
Gingrich himself, who flies from fund-raiser to fund-raiser on a small private plane, has much to win or lose. If Republicans keep their House majority, the speaker will be somewhat vindicated, hailed as a hero for leading the first re-election of a Republican majority in the House in 68 years.
But if the Republicans lose their majority in the House, Gingrich loses everything. "He will be blamed, no doubt about it," says Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, who is part of the Republican freshman class.
What's more, ethics charges that have dogged Gingrich since ** the start of his reign -- that he misused tax-exempt groups for political purposes -- would likely be pursued with vigor by a restored Democratic leadership.
Gingrich refuses to say whether he would step aside as House Republican leader should Democrats win back the House. But last month he told Congressional Quarterly it would be "inappropriate" to continue as his party's House leader if that happened.
Among his House colleagues, he has already lost some measure of power. "There is still the loyalty; there may not be the same degree of blind faith," says freshman Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona.
Some of the more conservative members have felt betrayed by Gingrich for capitulating to Democrats and thus allowing Clinton to claim some important legislative victories, such as welfare reform. Others have been disappointed that he was never able to curb his trademark bluster, as when he griped about his treatment on Air Force One, linking it to the government shutdown.
"Every time he snaps, he erases any positive impression he's tried to create," Shadegg says. "A great, inspirational leader -- which I think he is capable of being -- can't let that happen. The closest Ronald Reagan ever came to losing his temper was to say, 'There you go again.' "
Recognizing that the budget-balancing clash wounded the Republicans, and his own reputation, Gingrich retreated from the spotlight last spring to ponder "what had gone wrong, what had we misunderstood."
In retrospect, he says, the Republicans should have redesigned their strategy "the minute the first Medicare ad went up in September of 1995. In retrospect, we would have spent all our time holding hearings on Medicare, educating the country thoroughly and moving very cautiously."
The debate over Medicare is the prime source of his rage. Using Medicare as an offensive weapon, Democrats insisted that the Republican proposal to slow the rate of funding increases -- which Clinton also proposed but to a lesser extent -- would "cut," "slash" or "destroy" the popular program.
Polls show the strategy worked, persuading many Americans that the Republicans were hell-bent on cutting popular social programs. And it marked a turning point in public perceptions of House Republicans and their leader.
Seething with anger, Gingrich rails: "How can you go to sleep at night running an ad that you know is false, running an ad that you know is designed to scare 85- and 90-year-old Americans?"
Such "demagoguery," he says, "pales in comparison" to any "mistakes" he may have made over the past two years. In fact, while some polls suggest that impressions of the GOP Congress as "extremists" are hurting Dole, Gingrich is unwilling to accept blame.
"I don't take much responsibility for the fact that I have not been able to correct [the Democrats'] dishonesty, and I have not been able to correct 35,000 ads that are false," he says.
Similarly, Gingrich dismisses the suggestion that he overreached and that his grandiose talk of a "revolution" scared the public. He concedes only: "I wouldn't take on Big Bird if I had to do it over again," referring to his early call for the defunding of public broadcasting.
"We reached very far and we got a great deal," he says, listing health insurance reform, welfare reform and telecommunications reform as some accomplishments. "Just welfare reform alone would have made this a historical Congress. Could we have gotten that far with a less far-reaching, less aggressive agenda? I don't know."
Analysts say there are two readings on Gingrich's leadership. One, says Roger H. Davidson, a University of Maryland political scientist, is that "the Republicans had a magnificent opportunity to become the dominant party and redirect American politics, and they blew it."
The other, he says, is that the Republicans "really have changed the terms of the debate. Bill Clinton was elected as a New Democrat, but he wasn't acting as one until he had to."
Either way, the professor says, Gingrich will "loom very large" in the history of the House.
But that may be as far as it goes for Gingrich. Even if Republicans maintain control of the House and he continues as speaker, he is unlikely ever again to enjoy the heroic celebrity of nearly two years ago.
"He's like Dan Quayle -- stuck with a caricature," says Rich Noyes, political director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "He needs to understand that some aspects of his caricature can't be redrawn."
But Gingrich says he can repair his image by doing what he's been doing -- traveling the country so the public realizes, "I am not the person they've seen on the evening news."
Pub Date: 10/15/96