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Newt Gingrich rubs Americans the wrong way, pollster says

Newt Gingrich already is discovering stardom has its price. The caustic Georgia Republican who is poised to take over the House GOP is finding his increasingly high profile has brought more than a few enemies.

As the leading antagonist in the partisan pre-election battles, Gingrich has elevated his national exposure _ and some voters don't like what they see, says one prominent pollster.

"Republican leaders in Congress are enormously unpopular. . . . That is particularly true of Newt Gingrich," says President Clinton's pollster Stanley Greenberg. "He is much more unpopular than any other Republican leader."

Greenberg says Gingrich's unfavorable ratings outweigh his favorable numbers 2 to 1. That compares with even odds on Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and several Democratic leaders in Congress.

Greenberg speculates Gingrich's negatives are up because of his "highly partisan style," a gracious characterization in a town where Gingrich is often labeled a bomb-thrower, a control freak and some unprintable things.

But Gingrich is riding high these days. The subject of profiles in several national publications recently, he has stumped in about 125 congressional districts and raised close to $3-million for other Republican candidates.

With the retirement of House GOP Leader Robert Michel of Illinois, it is a near certainty Gingrich will rise to the House Republicans' No. 1 post. But why stop at Minority Leader? He's dreaming of winning 40 more GOP seats and becoming speaker of the House.

Gingrich's supporters question Greenberg's numbers and motives. "It's simply a red herring," said GOP pollster Steven Wagner. Gingrich's spokesman Tony Blankley says another national poll showed Gingrich supported and opposed by equal numbers of people surveyed.

And even a few negative reactions aren't all bad, says Blankley. "Some people appreciate his fighting spirit and some on the other side don't."

BIPARTISAN HEALTH: Amid the partisan squabbling in the rush to adjourn Congress earlier this month, Republicans and Democrats found at least one thing to agree on: saving a Medicare pilot program that allows the elderly to participate in health maintenance organizations.

As the lawmakers packed their bags to head home and campaign, they voted to extend the program, called Medicare Select, for six months. It had been slated to expire Dec. 31. More than 400,000 senior citizens in Florida and 14 other states currently participate in the program.

The extension, approved Oct. 7 in the House and the next day in the Senate, is part of a bill that included a number of technical corrections to the Medicare program. The bill is awaiting President Clinton's signature.

Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, estimates that Medicare Select provides health benefits to more than 50,000 Florida Medicare recipients. According to Bilirakis, the Medicare Select premiums are 10 percent to 30 percent less expensive than the typical fee-for-service Medigap option.

SHORT TAKES: Sorta rhymes with Pennsylvania: During a serious overview of his trip to a certain strife-torn Caribbean nation, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., kept referring to the country of "Haitia." . . . Republican House members, those stalwart advocates of less government, delivered 932 pithy "one minute" speeches for television consumption at the beginning of their chamber's business day this year. That tops last year's total of 827.

VERBATIM: "If the Republicans hadn't done this, the whole conversation would still be the Republicans going anti-Clinton and us defending Clinton, which is not a winning conversation for us." _ Democratic National Committee spokesman Tony Coelho, telling the New Yorker magazine that his party benefits politically from a GOP "contract" to cut taxes, cut entitlement spending and increase spending on defense.