US right wing ready to speak up: Patrick Cockburn in Alpharetta, finds a confident man at the cutting edge of the Rupeblican revival

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The Independent Online
'IT IS about even money', says Newt Gingrich, that after the Congressional elections in November he will be the first Republican speaker of the House of Representatives in 42 years.

He had just predicted to Republican activists from his own district meeting in suburban Alpharetta, in Georgia, that the Democrats lock on the House is about to be broken. 'We keep finding Democratic candidates who are falling apart,' he says. 'And I don't know of any Republican candidate who is behind.'

If the Democrats are swamped - as many polls predict - by a Republican tidal wave, then Mr Gingrich, the Minority Whip in the House, can claim much of the credit. The Democratic leadership, overconfident and enfeebled by years in power, has singularly failed to cope with his mix of aggressiveness and personal attacks.

Mr Gingrich comes across as a self-confident - at times arrogant - man who believes he has largely stage-managed what may be the biggest generational change in Congress since the Republican shipwreck after Watergate. In an interview he says his aim is to replace 'the governing mechanism of the centre-left created by FDR 60 years ago with one of the centre-right'.

In the past, Democrats did not to take this talk of ideological change too seriously. Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, called him 'a foghorn opportunist'. Ben Jones, an amiable ex-Congressman and former actor who is his Democratic opponent this year, says his talk of 'destroying the welfare state is just racism'. Such allegations may be true but the populist conservatism espoused by the Republican right gives them an ideological coherence the Democrats lack.

Mr Gingrich is a master of the highly visible confrontation. 'The No 1 fact about the media is that they love fights,' he says. His own career was made by highly publicised battles with Democratic speakers.

Other Republicans often dislike Mr Gingrich's aggression but his determination to take up strong positions contrasts with President Bill Clinton's willingness to fudge. More than any other politician, he can make complex issues sound simple.

It is a skill Mr Gingrich may need, because the Democrats hope to bring him down by using ethics charges against him as he did against them. At the centre is the allegation that Mr Gingrich controls Gopac, a dollars 6m (pounds 3.9m) fund contributed by wealthy Republicans whose identity he will not disclose. He says the fund is purely educational.

None of the allegations are likely to do him terminal damage in his Sixth District, centred on the famously conservative Cobb county, just to the north of Atlanta. In these wealthy and very white suburbs Mr Clinton won only 29 per cent of the vote in 1992 and would get less today.

Despite all Mr Gingrich's rhetoric about ending the welfare state, the wealth of his constituents owes more to the federal government than almost anywhere in the US. The largest employers in Cobb county are Lockheed, which operates a plant owned by the Pentagon, and Dobbins air force base. In one year the county received dollars 3.4bn.

Mr Gingrich denies he has mellowed in his 16 years in Congress. 'Historically what you did is you started off as conservative,' he says. 'Then you had to sell-out to the left to govern.' Instead he says he can shift America permanently to the right.

Twice before, under Richard Nixon and then under Ronald Reagan, the Republicans believed they could break the Democratic grip on the House of Representatives. Now, under Mr Gingrich's leadership, they may succeed.

(Photograph omitted)