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But that was just a momentary victory. It would take a little noticed defeat in the battle for a single congressional seat before most Republicans would begin to accept the unlikely and unliked Gingrich as their gladiator. The showdown came after the 1984 election, which left the result in Indiana's Eighth District too close to call. Incumbent Democrat Frank McCloskey had come out ahead in the initial balloting, but Republican challenger Richard McIntyre edged him out in two recounts. The House Democratic leadership ordered yet another count and put then Congressman Leon Panetta in charge of a three-member panel overseeing it. With two Democrats against a lone Republican, the minority party said they could predict the outcome, and they turned out to be right.

The fight was virtually ignored by the national press, but it would become the Republicans' Ruby Ridge--the kind of radicalizing event that would help elevate the party's most combative member to its leadership. Gingrich wrapped 30 years' worth of G.O.P. humiliation into this one dispute, comparing it at one point to the Holocaust. When the House voted along party lines to give the seat to McCloskey, Republicans walked out of the Chamber. Moments later they froze in disbelief as their leader, the affable Michel, returned and shook McCloskey's hand. "It validated Newt's thesis," Weber recalls. "The Democrats are corrupt, they are making us look like fools, and we are idiots to cooperate with them."

Gingrich is a man with a long memory; when he sits down these days to wrestle over the budget with Panetta, now White House chief of staff, that earlier showdown is never out of the Speaker's mind. "When Panetta stole the seat, we crossed a watershed," Gingrich says, "and we never returned." He ultimately got his revenge: McCloskey was a casualty of the 1994 Republican landslide.

Gingrich is now in a position to make himself the most powerful Speaker in modern history, largely because he succeeded in destroying another Speaker who had pursued the same ambition. In 1988 he took on Democrat Jim Wright, launching a yearlong ethics probe that ultimately brought Wright down. Gingrich's weapon of choice was always charges of corruption: by showing that the people who ran the system were venal, he could undermine the entire Democratic edifice. His favorite term for the House leadership: thugs. Wright, he flatly stated, was "the most corrupt Speaker in the 20th century," a man "so consumed by his own power that he is like Mussolini."

Gingrich needed to destroy Wright because they were after the same thing. Wright had begun to take the very steps Gingrich would take when he became Speaker: centralizing authority, reining in his committee chairmen, forcing discipline on unruly, self-interested Democrats. Even before Gingrich filed his initial ethics complaint, he told author John M. Barry that "if Wright survives this ethics thing, he may become the greatest Speaker since Henry Clay."

Against the advice of his Republican elders, Gingrich took on the fight. And by the time Wright resigned, House Republicans had elected Gingrich to their No. 2 post by a two-vote margin, carried by the faction that was tired of being beaten on every question and saw an opportunity to set a new, more activist agenda.

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