Republicans court blacks and women

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REPUBLICANS IN the House of Representatives endorsed Bob Livingston of Louisiana to succeed Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House when they met in Washington yesterday.

Mr Livingston, who is seen as a deal-maker, was chairman of the appropriations committee, and his candidacy was unopposed. His formal election as Speaker will take place when the House reconvenes in its new composition in January.

He precipitated Mr Gingrich's departure 10 days ago by announcing that he would challenge for the Speakership after the Republican Party's poor showing in the mid-term elections. Instead of the expected gains, they suffered losses that reduced their majority to 12, and blamed Mr Gingrich's handling of the campaign for the debacle.

The House Speaker ranks third in the US power structure, taking over in the unlikely event that both the President and Vice-President are removed from office or incapacitated.

While Mr Livingston's election was a foregone conclusion, there were close contests for three other top positions, with the prospect that the party could elect its first woman and its first black Representative to the leadership ranks. In the event, Jennifer Dunn of Washington State narrowly failed to defeat Dick Armey, the House Majority leader - who was taken to task jointly with Mr Gingrich for the party's election performance. Ms Dunn is seen as a moderate and also someone who could enhance the party's flagging appeal for women voters.

The third ranking House Republican, the chief whip, Tom Delay, is unchallenged, but the fourth, John Boehner, faced J C Watts of Oklahoma, a former football star, ideological conservative, and the party's only black member of Congress.

The extent to which black voters decided elections in southern states in favour of Democratic candidates underlined the Republicans' need to attract black voters and was seen as a factor in Mr Watts' favour.

Before those elections took place, Mr Gingrich made a brief appearance at yesterday's closed-door meeting, calling Mr Livingston to the podium and urging him to reinforceparty unity. Handing his successor a gavel, he reportedly said: "Your success as Speaker will in large measure be whether people in this room stand together and stand united."

Leading Republicans have expressed fears that the combination of their election losses and Mr Gingrich's departure could splinter the party in several ideological directions, with Christian fundamentalists and the "compassionate conservatives" in the ranks of state governors such as George W Bush finding little common ground.