NEW LONDON, CONN. -- It is a brilliant fall morning and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has come to Connecticut to raise money for another Republican candidate for Congress. He has been in more than 100 districts over the past two years with another several dozen to come, pressing his case for a Republican takeover of the House, and his radar is locked on the target.

A local reporter begins to ask a question. "If you are elected and become majority leader," he starts, but before he can finish, Gingrich interrupts.

"Actually, speaker," Gingrich says. "{Texas Republican Richard K.} Armey would be majority leader. I'd be speaker."

Laughter ripples through the room as the Republican faithful react to Gingrich's characteristic brashness while they savor the idea of a House led by a speaker named Gingrich, whose climb from bomb-throwing backbencher is one of the more startling evolutions in recent American politics.

He is the Republican Democrats love to hate. And no wonder. He has enormous self-confidence and an ambition of even larger proportions. "I think I am a transformational figure," he said over coffee earlier in the day. "I think I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change -- the liberal, Democratic machine -- have a natural reaction, which gets wearying sometimes."

Almost as much as disaffection with the Clinton presidency, Gingrich has come to symbolize what these midterm elections are about. The fact that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw plans to spend the final 36 hours of the campaign trailing Gingrich for a post-election special is only one sign of the role he plays this year. He is the architect of a Republican strategy aimed at toppling Democrats from control of the House and he has become the lightning rod for criticism over everything from his tactics to his temperament.

Gingrich, whose confrontational style brought cries of obstructionism from the White House this year, is under fire now for hosting a meeting with lobbyists in which he described President Clinton as the "enemy of normal Americans" and threatened to shut down Clinton's presidency by initiating a series of ethics investigations if Republicans take over the House.

He also has been criticized for putting enormous pressure on corporate and trade association political action committees (PACs) to stop giving money to Democratic incumbents and channel it to Republican challengers.

The House Republicans' 10-point "Contract with America," a Capitol steps extravaganza orchestrated by Gingrich, has become the target of attack by Clinton and Democratic congressional candidates, who say it would return the country to the trickle-down economics of the 1980s and either enlarge the deficit or force cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Energized Democrats claim Gingrich's tactics are an unexpected gift that could allow them to blunt the Republican offensive. "He's determined to gain control at all costs, and I think that's what the problem is," said Tony Coelho, senior adviser to the Democratic Party.

The irrepressible Gingrich couldn't be happier -- or more indignant.

"We offered a bill to kill the PACs," he said. "We were defeated. So the Democrats set the rules of the game, the rules which in fact were perfected by Tony Coelho {when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a member of the House in the 1980s}... . The fact that we're willing to suit up and go full speed is a sign that somehow we're bad people? I think it's an utterly outrageous performance by the Washington press corps."

The Democratic attacks on the Republican contract only bring a smile. "It's great," the husky, gray-thatched conservative said with a tone of self-satisfaction. "The contract is working perfectly. It is nationalizing the elections in a manner which I'm shocked to see the Democrats fall into."

Gingrich is at once theoretician, strategist, antagonist, self-promoter and bad boy. With the retirement of House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), Gingrich is in line for the top House Republican leadership post in January. If the November elections produce the landslide Republicans predict, he would become the first Republican speaker since Joseph W. Martin Jr. in 1953-55.

Gingrich and his advisers are already planning the transition. Democrats are preparing for the worst, even if they still control the House. "Where Bob Michel was respected, Newt they loathe," said one Democrat.

"I clearly fascinate them," Gingrich said of the Democrats. "I'm much more intense, much more persistent, much more willing to take risks to get it done. Since they think it is their job to run the plantation, it shocks them that I'm actually willing to lead the slave rebellion."

Gingrich evokes passions among both admirers and opponents.

When Gingrich arrived in Michigan this week to campaign for Republican Dick Chrysler, he was greeted by protesters from the campaign of Democrat Bob Mitchell. In Connecticut, he was met by Ben Jones, the former television actor who is trying to unseat Gingrich but is considered an underdog. Jones has followed him north because Gingrich is spending most of his time away from Georgia this fall.

"Hey, Newt," Jones said, after telling reporters to investigate Gingrich's "neo-McCarthyism."

"Hi, Ben," Gingrich said affably, and then turned his back.

But to people like Bob Sanders, a carpenter who showed up in work clothes to meet Gingrich in Connecticut, the Georgian is a political hero. "I watch Newt on NET {National Empowerment Television}," said Sanders, a Republican drawn to Gingrich's entrepreneurial philosophy.

White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos sees Gingrich as driven mostly by "an absolute ambition for power." Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), who was defeated in his primary, called Gingrich a "control freak" with no compass or principles.

William Kristol, a Republican strategist, said, "More than any single person, Newt Gingrich is responsible for taking a shellshocked Republican Party suffering from post-Bush syndrome and energizing it to the point where it is today."

Gingrich's dream of winning the House didn't seem possible until last spring. "We reached two conclusions about May," he said. "One was that we might win a majority... . The other was that the country was going to be so negative about Clinton that if we went as negative as the country was, we would drive down participation because people would be sick of the process. And so we consciously designed the contract around those two observations."

The contract has been criticized on editorial pages and by Democrats for promising what Republicans cannot hope to deliver and reviving Reagan policies that many voters rejected in the 1992 election. Gingrich argued that the voters rejected George Bush in 1992, and that the main elements of the contract are enormously popular.

Gingrich loves to bait the Democrats, and he speaks in language rich in military metaphors, historical analogies and cyber-age phrases plucked from the works of futurists like Alvin Toffler. His stump speech offers a lecture on five megatrends sweeping the globe that will help to demolish the existing liberal power structure.

They are the coming of the information age, the development of a world market, the gradual demise of the welfare state and the arrival of an opportunity society, the emergence of citizen politicians to replace the professional class now in power, and what he describes as his belief in the eventual triumph of "American exceptionalism" over counterculture values. His shorthand on that clash is Forrest Gump versus Bill Clinton.

Critics dismiss much of this philosophizing as just so much intellectual pretension, but Gingrich said the real problem is that his ideas give Democrats the willies. "If you're them, I've just described a horrifying and inconceivable future," he said. "So how could you ever really trust and work with a guy who has those weird ideas?"

Weird ideas and grandiose schemes have been part of the Gingrich MO since he was first elected to the House in 1978, an Army brat who never served in the military and a college professor with a dream to shape history as much as teach it.

He formed the Conservative Opportunity Society and became a leader of the Young Turks who used confrontation and C-SPAN to hector the Democratic leadership and reach for a national following. Trashing the "corrupt, liberal, welfare state" became their mantra, and a rejection of the get-along-go-along culture of the House was Rule One in their playbook. They drove then-Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) crazy.

Public corruption was a staple of Gingrich's strategy as well, as he sought to erode confidence in the Democrats. He campaigned in his first, losing race for Congress by attacking the ethics of his opponent and once in Washington seized on every ethical problem among the Democrats to attack the system. In 1989 he bagged his biggest trophy when then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) resigned over financial and ethical improprieties.

Over the years, Gingrich has offended politicians of all kinds. He once labeled Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) "the tax collector for the welfare state" and said the 1985 meeting of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was "the most dangerous summit for the West" since Munich.

He has been one of Clinton's leading antagonists, but ironically helped give him one of his most significant legislative victories on the North American Free Trade Agreement, delivering more Republicans than promised.

Gingrich also has been the subject of several ethics complaints, one involving his book, "Window of Opportunity," during the Jim Wright affair. But nothing has come of them. He was almost defeated in 1990 and in a primary in 1992, and Democrats continue to make him one of their prime targets.

In his early years, he seemed an unlikely leader-to-be. Too brash, too outspoken, too confrontational, too excitable, too apocalyptic. But over the years, potential rivals kept leaving the House: Jack Kemp to the Bush Cabinet; Trent Lott to the Senate, Tom Loeffler to private business. When Bush appointed Richard B. Cheney as defense secretary, Gingrich ran for GOP whip and won, to the astonishment of many in both parties.

His style clashed with the genial Michel and he soon became a thorn in Bush's side as well. Objecting to Bush's decision to break his no-tax pledge, Gingrich sank the initial 1990 budget deal worked out through months of negotiations between the White House and congressional Democrats.

Gingrich took considerable heat for his obstructionism, but Nicholas Calio, who at the time was trying to round up votes for the Bush White House, now says, "He thought it was going to be a disaster for the Republicans, and you know what, he turned out to be right."

His allies claim Gingrich has successfully made the transition from backbencher to leader, although many Democrats believe he is every bit the agitator of old. Gingrich said he has learned from his mistakes. "When you're a senior leader you can whisper and the microphone's powerful enough to carry it," he said. "So if you're yelling into the microphone as a senior leader, it's destructive."

Whispering Newt?

"Compared to what I did as a backbencher," he explained.

Gingrich finds himself under ever greater scrutiny, not only from opponents but the press as well. His leadership PAC has drawn a formal complaint from Democratic challenger Jones for failing to disclose its full list of contributors. Gingrich argues, narrowly, that because most of GOPAC's work is in behalf of state and local candidates, he is bound to disclose only that portion that affects federal candidates.

Nonetheless, he said he is preparing to yield on the issue, although in typical fashion not to satisfy his critics but to challenge them. "I'm going to recommend in November that prospectively they {GOPAC} don't take any money except from people willing to have their names listed and they go public and then challenge the Democratic Leadership Council and Ralph Nader to do the same," he said.

The tenor of the House will change dramatically in January, even if Republicans don't have a majority. Despite the attention he draws to himself, Gingrich has developed a cadre of Republicans who share his vision and who will play increasingly important roles.

But the GOP caucus is a far more conservative body than it was a decade ago and that will challenge Gingrich's ability to work with party moderates.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who gave up his leadership post after criticism that he did not always vote with the party, is one of a group of several dozen moderates who now meet weekly to plot strategy. "We like to do more than just vote no," Upton said. "We like to be constructive members."

Gingrich's impatience sometimes puts him at odds even with conservatives. Armey said he and Gingrich have had their differences, but they have developed a good working relationship. "We moved faster on the contract than I would have liked," Armey said. "I would liked to have formed up the ideas a little more, but Newt's got a sense of urgency."

Gingrich and Armey also differed over whether to include school prayer in the contract. Armey wanted it, Gingrich did not. "He felt it would be a red flag that would be focused on by the liberal media to characterize our effort as radical right-wing," Armey said.

At a deeper level, Gingrich is playing for much larger stakes than control of the House. He wants to usher out the era of big-government liberalism that he says has been a disaster for the country.

But Democrats see in this his darker instincts. Coelho said the differences between Gingrich and former House Republican leaders such as Kemp or Cheney or Loeffler is that "all these people felt we had to protect the integrity of the individual and the integrity of the House."

Coelho continued: "I have a high regard for Newt's ability and basically we are friends, but what I have a problem with is this blind side he has, where he has said in the past the only way we are going to win is burn the place down and rebuild it. I happen to think he believes that, and I think it is destructive to our governmental system."

Gingrich said that he admires Coelho as a Democratic strategist, "but he now has the desperately hard job of being the field commander for a decaying army in retreat and that means he ends up doing and saying things that are destructive."

Other politicians with Gingrich's energy, ambition and ego cast their eyes up the ladder and eventually see the presidency. Gingrich seems to look past that office to a more all-encompassing role, the revival of American civilization, which just happens to be the topic of a course he teaches and beams by satellite around the country -- although the Georgia college where he teaches has asked him to quit promoting his financial backers.

"The number one job I have is to teach and articulate what a successful 21st century America would be like and then to try to communicate what it would be like in volunteerism, in local government, in state government and federal government, and in world affairs. I think that's my most important contribution."

Could a man like this, should he ever become speaker, coexist with a Republican president?

"We'll find out," he said. "We'll find out."

Isn't that up to him? he is asked.

"It's up to them too," he replied. For the presidency, in Gingrich's formulation, is only the first among a number of powerful people. "It is not," as he explained, "towering over the land."