Gingrich's gaffes delight the Democrats

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Newt Gingrich is nothing if not good entertainment. But his aggressively conservative politics, authoritarian instincts and propensity to hold forth at every turn are starting to threaten the quick-fire legislative programme on which he built his party'striumph last November.

The first Republican to hold the job for 40 years, Mr Gingrich has amassed more power than any modern Speaker. But tact and patience are not his strong suits, while outbursts, gaffes and sundry outpourings of patented Gingrich future-babble are daily occurrences.

Some pronouncements, such as the claim of widespread drug use by White House staff and his call for the US embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem, have serious political and diplomatic implications.

Others are comic. Take the Speaker's views on women in combat: "Females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections and they don't have upper body strength ... Men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the

ditch and they roll around in it."

On the other hand, Mr Gingrich declared, if combat is "being on a cruiser managing the computer controls for 12 ships and their rockets, a female may be dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair ... because males arebiologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes".

Unsurprisingly though, the public is deeply unsure. According to a Wall Street Journal poll yesterday, people, by a 31-28 per cent margin, have an unfavourable view of him. By three to one, registered Republicans feel the more moderate and pragmatic Bob Dole, the Senate Majority leader, better represents their party and its values.

In purely political terms, Mr Gingrich's biggest problem remains The Book Deal: the planned political opus for which he accepted, and later under fierce pressure renounced, a $4.5m (£2.9m) advance from a publishing house owned by Rupert Murdoch.

On Wednesday, the rumpus brought chaos to the House floor as Republicans used their majority to cut off Democratic criticism of the deal - only to be accused of imposing a "gag rule".

Mr Gingrich yesterday was his usual defiant self: he stood by his comments on women's role in battle, while the book dispute was "silly".

But the verbal fireworks signify something more serious - the virtual end of any pretence at bipartisan co-operation. House rules are strict, but Democrats may well now use every trick to slow the Republican steamroller behind the "Contract with America", even where they agree, such as over the balanced budget amendment, welfare reform and tax cuts.

Yesterday, after renewed squabbling over the "gag", the House began debating "unfunded mandates", the proposed abolition of the practice whereby Congress imposed laws on states without providing necessary funding. Democrats have tabled dozens of amendments. The issue is crucial to the balanced budget amendment, which faces a struggle in both chambers to secure the needed two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment.

But all is overshadowed by Mr Gingrich and the possibility, dreaded by Republicans, relished by Democrats, that a self-immolating Big Bang is at hand.