Bush's (New) Go-To Guy

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On Saturday mornings back home in Illinois, Hastert and his wife Jean drive for groceries. Afterward, Hastert likes to drop in on the local Republican headquarters several shops down to catch up on town gossip, then head to nearby Bristol, where a buddy owns a garage. Hastert loves to restore old cars and fire trucks. "Being powerful is something I never sought," he said, riding in his suv last month past miles of corn and soybean fields in his district. "But I understand this is a fickle business, and we need to grab the moment now."

The modern House of Representatives, though, has a nasty tendency to devour its leader. The Speaker's gavel has changed hands four times in the past 14 years. Tip O'Neill was the last Speaker to leave without being ousted by scandal or electoral defeat. Denny Hastert may hope for a long reign in the top job. But if the economy keeps going south, Hastert, the former high school economics teacher, may be undone by the subject he once taught.

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