Republicans fight over Newt's post

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CONTENDERS FOR the top jobs in the United States Republican Party queued up to advertise their talents on television talkshows yesterday, as the leading lights of American political punditry scrambled to make sense of a week that had defied all their predictions.

The party's de facto leader and chief figurehead - the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich - had fallen on his sword late on Friday to head off a mutiny in the party caused by its poor showing in last week's mid-term elections.

Out ahead of those competing to replace Mr Gingrich was Bob Livingston, a long-time friend. His challenge, announced on Friday afternoon, was seen as the trigger for Mr Gingrich's decision to resign.

Mr Livingston, 55, from Louisiana, presented himself yesterday as a competent successor to Mr Gingrich with the capacity to reunite the congressional party.

He is currently chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee, a post for which he had Mr Gingrich to thank. In his candidacy, he is stressing the differences between himself, a hands-on administrator, and Mr Gingrich, an ideologue and visionary. Mr Livingston told reporters what was needed was not "inspirational speeches" but "perspiration-filled achievements".

He claimed he was already assured more than 100 of the necessary 112 votes needed to win the Speakership. But Mr Gingrich's resignation still freed others to announce their candidacy. Christopher Cox, 47, a California Representative, who chairs the Republican policy committee, threw his hat into the ring. Others are expected to follow. The election will take place on 18 November.

The House Majority leader, Dick Armey, who has been blamed jointly with Mr Gingrich for the party's election failures, faces opposition.

The smooth-talking but inexperienced Steve Largent, 48, of Oklahoma, was first to announce his challenge, but J C Watts - also from Oklahoma and the only black Republican in Congress - indicated that he would also be in contention. With black voters credited with swinging the vote for the Democrats in several key races last week, the attraction for the party of having a black Representative in a senior position could be a big consideration.

Mr Gingrich made clear that his decision to resign was fuelled not only by a sense of responsibility, but by bitterness. Emerging from his house briefly he accused House Republicans of resorting to "cannibalism" following their election losses.

He confirmed that he also would relinquish the House seat he had just held. "For me to stay ... would make it impossible for a new leader to have a chance to grow, to learn and do what they need to do."

Opinion polls suggested Americans supported his departure. An ABC News poll said the public backed his resignation by 70 to 26 per cent. Such a step has so few precedents that Mr Gingrich admitted he was looking into the legality of it. He has been the elected Representative for the Sixth District of Georgia, centred on the town of Marietta near Atlanta, since 1978. At least for the time being, he is expected to withdraw from public life.

The Republican Party's difficulties are not guaranteed to end with his departure. Almost any combination of those competing to succeed him will expose the growing gap between the conservative, religious, and "inspirational" wing of the party, which progressively withdrew its support for Mr Gingrich, and those who embrace the "compassionate conservatism" so successfully harnessed by George W Bush and his brother Jeb in their successful campaigns for state governor of Texas and Florida.