House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) today staunchly defended independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, saying the prosecutor has become the target of a smear campaign.

"I am frankly sickened at the degree to which there has been a deliberate politicizing and a deliberate smear campaign against a former federal judge," Gingrich said at a Republican Party breakfast in his home district.

Gingrich's remarks came a day after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called on Starr to quickly wrap up his investigation of Clinton. Lott also suggested that Congress might consider censuring Clinton if there was evidence of presidential wrongdoing that was not serious enough to warrant impeachment.

When asked by a constituent about Lott's comments, Gingrich said, "I don't know why Trent said what he said yesterday."

People should be patient and let Starr, who has spent seven weeks investigating the relationship between Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewisky, do his job, Gingrich said.

"I think he ought to go at the pace that justice dictates, not the pace that public relations dictates," Gingrich later told reporters.

Recent polls have shown that only one out of eight Americans view Starr favorably, and even his friends have said mistakes have fed into a White House portrayal that he is out to get the president.

Gingrich criticized the White House for attacking the prosecutor's tactics, saying it's a sign of how "scared they are. . . . I think it is disgraceful that official representatives of the executive branch are undermining a legitimate, legal investigation of the Department of Justice." CAPTION: At a GOP breakfast in Cobb County, Ga., House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized the White House for attacking Kenneth W. Starr and his investigation.