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COLUMN ONE : Gingrich: At Long Last, Power : In a Democrat's nightmare come true, the former gadfly is in line to be the GOP's top congressman--with hopes of leading his party's first majority in decades.

October 03, 1994|KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sources of funds for this network are murky. His political action committee, GOPAC, has refused to disclose its donor list, which Gingrich says is legal under a loophole in federal law. The Federal Election Commission is suing, and Gingrich's long-shot Democratic opponent, former congressman and "Dukes of Hazzard" star Ben Jones, has lodged a complaint with the Ethics Committee.

Gingrich's 10-week college course had to be moved from a public to a private institution after it was revealed that GOPAC helped organize and design it. Moreover, he was criticized for using the course to plug some of his large donors and their corporations.

"It's a huge issue, one that's not going to go away," challenger Jones said of the ethical questions that are swirling around Gingrich. "He's using this district as a means to an end--and that end is his own ideological agenda and his own personal ambition."

For now, however, the accusations and insinuations have yet to stick. Gingrich and his allies say that the criticism amounts to little more than partisan sniping and insist that his outside organizations are merely a means of getting his ideas to a larger forum.

A voracious reader, Gingrich draws those ideas from sources that range from management guru Peter Drucker to futurist Alvin Toffler. Ask Gingrich about his agenda for the long haul, and his street-fighter bluntness gives way to frothy jargon that sounds New Age enough for a Nike commercial.

"We're really about inventing an information-age, third-wave, world-market-oriented society, which is a replacement for a bureaucratic, second-wave, national-market, welfare state," he said, adding: "Getting people so that they get the rhythm of that is weird."

The flag-waving extravaganza last week on the Capitol steps was a move in that direction. Yet even many Republicans wonder whether tying locally elected candidates to the broad national platform outlined in the contract--including such ideas as a balanced-budget amendment, line-item veto and a defense buildup--could backfire.

All of the items on that agenda have at least 60% support in the polls, Gingrich contends. But Lewis, among others, noted that some of the items--such as cuts in agricultural programs--could be controversial in local areas.

Given the fact that the most crucial fall election battles will be closely fought in swing districts, "already, there's no doubt Democrats are licking their chops," Lewis said. "National themes are great for symbolism, but many a district doesn't fit that mold."

And for some GOP incumbents the contract presents awkward contradictions. Gingrich, for instance, finds himself advocating that no House member be allowed to serve more than six terms--even as he runs for his ninth.

Asked to explain the apparent double-standard on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, he declined to say directly whether he would step down if the term-limits proposal became a reality.

"The notion that everybody who's for something has to offer to commit suicide in order for you to think they're sincere, I think is fairly outrageous," Gingrich said.

Although Democrats have promised to hang the contract on vulnerable candidates in the fall elections, many of the GOP's young warriors say the commitment to a single agenda is just what the party needs if it is to shake its permanent minority mentality. "The Republicans can't just say no. We have to tell the American people what we're for," Pombo said.

Gingrich is instituting another change that is winning almost universal acclaim within his ranks: He is putting members on notice that if they want to hold senior positions, they must be willing to raise at least $50,000 each to help other GOP candidates win.

"What I said to them is real simple: If you want to be a chairman (which requires being a member of the majority party), you have to work like you're going to be a chairman," Gingrich said.

Lobbyists report that they are being hounded for contributions by GOP lawmakers who had never put the arm on them before.

Some Republicans found the new marching orders unsettling.

"When he asked me to raise this money, I said, 'I can't do this,' " recalled Johnson, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, the mother lode for hauling in special-interest money.

But she added that it has become easier as she has tailored her appeal, pointing out that she is "raising money for there to be a new direction in the Congress."

Democrats, of course, point out that this "new direction" is being underwritten in the most traditional and discredited of manners--soliciting money from people whose financial interests are at stake. Indeed, hours after signing their contract, Republicans celebrated at a $500-a-plate fund-raiser.

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