By Dan Balz and Juliet Eilperin
For the past two weeks, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has been on a tear. He has accused President Clinton and the Democrats of stonewalling and obstruction, and his attacks have energized party activists whose votes will be crucial in the November midterm elections.
But Gingrich's persistent criticism of the administration has made him the center of controversy once again -- to the delight of Democrats. Even some Republicans worry that his attacks could backfire among some voters and harm the party in the long run.
"There is no question that bashing Clinton is a sure-fire formula to excite the Republican base," said one GOP consultant who asked not to be identified because he did not want to pick a public fight with the speaker. "But serving as a governing party that hopes to command a long-term majority of the electorate in the country requires acting in ways that speak to more than the Republican base."
Those fears were compounded this week by the performance of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). The committee's decision to release selectively edited transcripts of the prison phone conversations of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell brought fresh criticism that Burton is waging a vendetta against the president.
The Burton committee's actions caused strains inside the House Republican caucus that Gingrich was forced to confront, even as his aggressive public strategy continued.
Barely a month ago, he was the warm and fuzzy speaker, touring the country in a V-neck sweater as he promoted a new book and a more humble persona. But now Gingrich is on a different tour with a different mission. From Arizona to New Hampshire, he has assailed Clinton and the Democrats over the controversies that have swamped the administration and that are now the subject of investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the Justice Department.
Many Republicans agree that it was time for the party speak out against Clinton and the White House attacks on Starr, but some fear that Gingrich is too much a lightning rod to be effective. The speaker's supporters reject that.
"There isn't anybody else," said Rich Galen, executive director of GOPAC, the political action committee that Gingrich chaired until he became House speaker.
Another adviser said, "This has been going on for a long time. Has anyone gotten any attention? A thimble perhaps. A shot glass. A drop."
Whatever the long-term consequences, the Gingrich offensive has paid some immediate dividends for the party, according to House GOP leaders. Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters last week that his committee has seen a 50 percent increase in responses to telephone solicitations by fund-raisers. The Republican National Committee also has reported a surge of support among donors.
"They want to see us on the offensive," Linder said. "For our base and our fund-raising, Newt is very important."
Another House Republican said, "If you go out across the country, a lot of people are saying to Republicans, 'Why are you letting him [Clinton] get away with it?' "
It is widely assumed that Gingrich acted out of fears that the GOP majority in the House would be in jeopardy if party activists are demoralized and don't turn out to vote. But those who know Gingrich best contend that was not his motivation.
One adviser who spoke with Gingrich in the days leading up to his first attack two weeks ago: "Not once did we have a discussion about what it would do to the base or for the base or for the election."
Another Gingrich adviser said the decision by Democrats on the Burton committee to oppose granting immunity to four potential witnesses in the campaign finance investigation triggered the speaker's decision to go on the attack. Gingrich, the adviser said, wants to "shape the environment so that [stonewalling] is not an option for the Democrats" once Starr has finished his investigation and reported to the House.
In raising his voice against the president, Gingrich has returned to a theme -- corruption and the Democrats -- that sustained him during his rise to power in the House in the 1980s. Some Republicans believe his decision to attack Clinton is analogous to his crusade against former House speaker Jim Wright of Texas a decade ago.
At the time, Gingrich was not part of the leadership, and many of his friends warned him that he was jeopardizing his political career. But Gingrich persisted. Eventually Wright resigned from the House and Gingrich was elected GOP whip and later speaker.
"He sees himself as a historical figure who sees around the next corner and predicts what will happen," said Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a GOP consultant.
Reed said Gingrich may be willing to accept "a short-term hit" because he believes he is "on the side of the angels." Reed said Gingrich believes he will be vindicated once the facts are in. Reed also said he believes Gingrich is looking past the elections in November. "After the Republicans continue holding Congress and the election is over, he has built a rationale for why they have to pursue these allegations," he said.
But this positive view is tempered by the concern that sustained attacks on a president whose job approval ratings remain strong -- and are more than double that of the speaker -- may turn off mainstream voters who are tired of the diet of scandal news out of Washington. "This is a difficult walk for the speaker," said a House Republican who called the outlook for November "dicey." He added, "There's a real stress and strain" among Republicans about how to proceed.
Even as he speaks out against Clinton, Gingrich has wrestled with the problem of controlling the Burton committee to prevent more embarrassments. This week the speaker likely will decide how much of the campaign finance investigation he should turn over to the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).
Gingrich and Thomas have never been close allies, but Thomas has a reputation for mastering complex subjects and for tough partisanship. He handled the contested election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), concluding that while there was vote fraud, it did not justify reversing the outcome of an election that ended in the defeat of then-Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.).
Thomas and others on the committee recognize the pitfalls of high-profile investigations. "You have to watch what you say," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who served on the Dornan-Sanchez task force. "You have to be absolutely careful because it can taint getting to the truth."
In coming weeks, Gingrich will attempt to steer carefully through the demands of activists for combative attacks on Clinton and public demands for even-handed investigations -- all the while buying time until it is clear whether Starr plans to send a report to the House in the near future.
Many Republicans now say it will be next to impossible to conclude action on a Starr report this year, even if he were to submit it in the next few weeks. In that context, they believe what Gingrich is doing is preparing the ground either for postponing action until next year or setting the issue aside for lack of clear evidence.
"By continuing to raise the concern about the president's behavior there is some continuity between now and when the report is finished," said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster.
A House Republican said, "Gingrich is trying to make it clear we're serious about pursuing this, but leaving maximum flexibility not to move it forward if there is not absolutely convincing evidence to bring him [Clinton] down. My guess is that what the speaker is doing is being a little more bellicose than he might want to be, but he is doing it so that at a time when we have to fold the cards or hold the cards until the next Congress, the grass roots won't feel betrayed."
But others say Gingrich is merely being Gingrich. "I don't think he spoke out or stopped from speaking out because he thought of political risks," said one adviser. "This is not a guy who calculates that way. Speaking out is part of his character."
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