Newt flounders amid bad vibes

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Newt Gingrich's hopes of surviving his ethics problems and remaining Speaker suffered big setbacks last night as one of the most senior and respected House Republicans urged him to step aside, and an opinion poll showed that 65 per cent of Americans wanted him replaced.

Speaking 24 hours before today's scheduled election of a Speaker for the 105th Congress, Jim Leach, a Congressman of 20 years from Iowa, and chairman of the House Banking Committee, declared that "for the good of the country" Mr Gingrich should resign, and permit the House to choose a new leader.

Mr Leach's independence of mind is well known. But his call is lent extra weight by his chairing of a Congressional probe into the Whitewater affair and the alleged financial irregularities by President Clinton as Governor of Arkansas. Earlier Mr Gingrich had pronounced himself "absolutely" confident he would be the first Republican since 1928 to serve consecutive terms as Speaker.

Last night Mr Gingrich pleaded his cause before a meeting of his peers, and party leaders still predicted he would be re-elected.

Only two of the 227 Congressional Republicans have said they will oppose him. But even if he were to survive today, the Speaker's troubles would not be over.

The House Ethics Committee has yet to publish its report, and the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service is expected to carry out a separate investigation of Mr Gingrich's illegal use of tax-exempt funds to fund a partisan college course which he taught.

Mr Gingrich has admitted he acted improperly, and that he "misled" the committee about the affair.

Last night's CNN poll meanwhile showed that even a majority of Republican voters thought he should step down as Speaker.

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