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Gingrich risks right's ire to keep Speaker's post

With a slimmer waistline, a rousing speech to the conservative activists who once adored him and a virtually mandatory appearance on Larry King's television talk show, Newt Gingrich is making perhaps his final effort to avoid being tossed out as Speaker by his own Republican party.

In the three months since aformal reprimand and fine by Congress for ethics violations, Mr Gingrich's fortunes have slithered from bad to worse. His authority over his troops has faded, while the debate over his future has split the once- exultant Republican majority and reduced the House of Representatives to near-paralysis.

One Republican Congressman has described him as "roadkill," and the conservative Weekly Standard magazine has written that his replacement is the only hope of saving the Republican "revolution" which he once embodied.

Another conservative commentator called the Speaker "a dead mouse on the kitchen floor of American politics".

But for the first time since his censure by the House Ethics Committee in January, Mr Gingrich has been sounding like the self-proclaimed iconoclast who led his party to triumph in November 1994.

Admittedly, his audience on Monday evening - the GOPAC political action committee, which he himself founded - could not have been friendlier. But the Speaker was back to his old self, preaching radical go-for-growth economics, lambasting unions and criticising the ethics failings of the Clinton administration as if his own did not exist. More of the same can be expected during Friday's Larry King appearance.

A lasting comeback, however, will be difficult. His foes this time are not Democrats, who would like nothing better than the survival of a discredited Gingrich, but his own nominal Republican supporters.

His own missteps have made matters worst. Most remarkable was his apparent forswearing of a tax cut in the interest of agreement with the White House on a balanced budget. The gesture was meant to shore up his support among moderate Republicans, but it enraged the conservatives.

"He's attempting to rehabilitate himself at the expense of the Republican party," Peter King, the New York Congressman responsible for the "roadkill" remark, said yesterday.

For Mr King and others who believe Mr Gingrich is betraying the revolution to save his own skin, every favourable reference to the Speaker in the "liberal media" like the Washington Post and New York Times adds insult to injury. Some Republicans muse openly of a secret ballot to dethrone him.

His one comfort is the lack of an obvious replacement. The most attractive candidate, the Budget Committee chairman John Kasich, looks more interested in running for president.