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US midterms Thursday, 5 November, 1998, 14:19 GMT
From the House to the White House?
Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt
Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt: Different, yet the same
Major political differences aside, Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt - the two most senior figures in the House of Representatives - share a similar dilemma.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]While both have been busy pounding the campaign trail in the run-up to the mid-term elections, they must soon make up their minds, in private at least, whether to run for the White House in 2000.

Analysts have been busy weighing up whether Mr Gephardt, leader of the Democratic minority in the House, and Mr Gingrich, Republican House majority speaker, will follow their hearts or their heads in the coming months.

What happens in the November election will help determine how each positions himself in the 2000 presidential race.

Balance of power

This is especially true for Speaker Gingrich. Even if the Republicans only gain a handful of seats, he will still hold a powerful position. As Speaker Mr Gingrich a vital opportunity to press through key legislation and elevate his still shaky standing among fellow Republicans and the public at large.

That power might be too valuable to sacrifice for a presidential race in which George Bush Jr - son of the former president - remains Republicans' preferred choice.

George Bush Junior
George Bush Junior: Republican favourite
For Mr Gephardt, his position as minority leader is an opportunity. A well-known face and exposure on television could be ploughed into currying favour and finances on the presidential campaign trail.

Tough choices

Mr Gephardt has already twice, unsuccessfully, campaigned for the nomination, in 1988 and 1992.

Thomas Mann, of Washington's Brookings Institution political think tank, says Mr Gephardt has thrived as minority leader in the House, and improved his public standing.

But he still face faces two major obstancles to his nomination as Democratic candidate.

The Missouri congressman is perceived as too liberal even for many Democrats. Mr Mann points out that although he has moved to the left, he started as a moderate.

"Gephardt helped found the Democratic Leadership Conference, out of which arose Bill Clinton," says Mr Mann, director of governmental studies at the institution.

Also standing in his path to the Oval Office is Vice President Al Gore, who as Mr Clinton's loyal deputy for the past six years, remains the out-and-out favourite for the Democratic nomination.

This is why Mr Gephardt has long been on the campaign trail for 2000. Shortly after the inauguration of the last Congress, in early 1997, his critics noted that he was already busy touring the country.

Among the stop-off points on his itinerary were Iowa and New Hampshire - hosts to the initial primaries which can make or break a presidential bid.

Mr Mann thinks he will probably throw in his lot with the Gore campaign.

"I think they would make a popular ticket. Gore is stong on the environmental and ... front, while Gephardt would boost support among blue collar voters."

Newt Gingrich, likewise, faces a tough gamble when considering his future options.

Commentators point to the House leader's dramatic image change as evidence that he is planning an assault on the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Gingrich, who spearheaded the Republican revolution of 1994/5, witnessed his personal ratings plummet with the public backlash to his increasingly radical approach.

Earlier this year, he too was busy shuttling across the country, ostensibly on a tour to promote his book. Among his destinations - Iowa and New Hampshire.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich as work as House Speaker
His fiery past was traded in for a more homely, down to earth attitude. Newspapers called him as "folksy" and "nicer", less prone to "tantrums".

His more considered image has carried through to his job at House Speaker. Mr Gingrich, an acute political strategist, has adopted a drip-drip strategy to attacking the president over the Lewinsky scandal.

Rather than go for the jugular, he has been careful to take, or at least appear to take, the formal, bipartisan high-road.

Mr Gingrich might feel forced to run this time since he can only serve as speaker until 2002, says Mr Mann.

But he remains a "controversial figure" among the public, he says.

"He is a bombastic character. For most of his political career he has led a guerrila war against his opponents," says Mr Mann.

"He is deeply unpopular and his chances of getting the Republican nomination are remote, so he probably doesn't feel the tension of whether or not to run as much as we might think."

Links to more US midterms stories are at the foot of the page.

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