And Now, the Newt and Bubba Show

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WASHINGTON: There he goes again. Weeks ago, Speaker Gingrich unveiled a kinder, gentler Newt -- complete with new and improved poll numbers. But in the past few days, Gingrich has done a 180 by launching his most vicious verbal volley yet. Accusing Clinton of "the most systematic effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history," the Speaker lambasted White House attacks on Ken Starr -- advising the "unpatriotic" administration to "shut up." More bemused than angry, Clinton's staff is handling Gingrich like the naughty kid at the back of the class. "As soon as he comes back to his senses," shrugged Mike McCurry, "we'll do business."

With the public ever more on Clinton's side, Gingrich's tactic seems a little badly timed. Why go negative now? Because, says TIME congressional correspondent James Carney, the Speaker is taking the fall for the entire GOP. "To win in November, Republicans have to motivate their base." And the Lewinsky investigation is one heck of a wedge issue. Never mind about Newt 2000 -- "Gingrich is not as sure about running for President as he once was," adds Carney. Greater love hath no man than he lay down his candidacy for his party. With Gingrich promising to mention this in every speech he makes "so long as I am Speaker," his numbers look set to go skydiving. He'd better hope it was worth it.