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Gingrich, Cheerleader for Others, Hurries Home to Help Himself

WILL Georgia voters boot Newt?

It's the 11th hour question being asked here as Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia cut short out-of-state political trips and hurried home to rally the troops in his own district.

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Mr. Gingrich, the Republicans' House whip and their unofficial conservative gadfly in Congress, finds himself on election eve in what may be a closer-than-expected horse race. His Democratic opponent is former Rep. Ben Jones.

``I think he's beginning to feel a bit endangered,'' says Charles Bullock, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Gingrich canceled a planned trip to campaign for Republicans in California and Ohio over the weekend. He came home for last-minute rallies and door-to-door stumping in his own 6th District. Rumors were swirling that he appeared to be in trouble.

What apparently started the speculation of a closer race was an Oct. 31 poll put out by the Jones camp that showed Gingrich ahead by 45 to 39 points.

Then on Friday, the Washington Times, quoting unnamed sources, reported that the race was down to a toss-up four-point margin.

Gingrich denies the race is close and says he came back only because he wants to be on home turf.

Responding to the Jones poll, Gingrich's press secretary, Allan Lipsett, says: ``Ben [Jones] on Oct. 31 took a `trick-or-treat' poll. He tricked the voters and is now treating himself to some fake numbers. They're doing anything they can to try and make it look closer, probably so they can get some last-minute donations.''

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Gingrich himself shook his head and bristled slightly at the question of how the Washington Times came up with its numbers.

It's amazing ``how many media outlets go after these polls that aren't true,'' he said during a break in a rally here on Saturday. People ``are desperate for proof that conservatives are behind.'' He points to his own polls, taken last Wednesday and Thursday, which show him with a 59 to 28 percent lead, with 11 percent of voters undecided.

``That's laughable,'' Professor Bullock says. ``How about ocean-front property in Arizona? That's one extreme. Maybe the [other extreme] is the Washington Times.... Somewhere between that is a wide range of area. My hunch is that [Gingrich's margin is] somewhere in the single figures at this point.''

Merle Black, a professor of political science at Atlanta's Emory University, disputes the idea that Jones has victory within reach. ``I think it would take everything in the world for him to win,'' he says. ``It might be tighter than people think, but given the Republican gains that are going to occur [nationwide], it would be very difficult for Jones to pull an upset in that seat.''

Across the United States, Republicans are expected to pick up from 20 to 30 seats in the House this week. A 40-seat gain - possible, but not likely - would probably make Gingrich the next Speaker of the House.

Gingrich's district in suburban Atlanta is laden with Republicans who work in high-tech and white-collar jobs. It went 56 percent for George Bush in 1992, with Bill Clinton garnering just 29 percent.

Dr. Black says that, in that pro-GOP environment, Democrats running in the 6th District don't have much of a chance. Still, Gingrich knows what it's like to be in tough races. In 1990, before Georgia's districts were redrawn after the new census, he beat Democrat David Worley by only 974 votes. In 1992 he won the GOP primary against former state Rep. Herman Clark by less than 1,000 votes, though he defeated Democratic challenger Tony Center in the general election by 58 to 42 percent.

Bill Florence, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, says that one reason Gingrich has such close races is that he ignores his own voters. ``I think people in the 6th District are tired of that,'' Mr. Florence says.

``He does have a staff that's been attentive,'' Bullock says. ``But combine his absence over the last month with the image that I think has been conveyed to the constituents, which is that they see him every night on the news, but they aren't seeing him in Marietta, in Cherokee County. It gives the impression he's not around.''

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