Already, they call him Mr. Speaker.
And he answers.
Not until the wee hours of Nov. 9 will Rep. Newt Gingrich learn whether the country has elected enough Republicans to elevate him from minority whip to speaker of the House and put him third in the line of presidential succession.
But the Republicans are confident that even if they fail to win a majority, they will at least take effective control. And the silver-thatched Georgia firebrand makes clear as he hopscotches around the country _ he has visited 125 congressional districts, including the one that includes this Tennessee town, to drum up support for the foot soldiers in his pending revolution _ that either way he expects to rule the roost.
"We'll be either the strongest Republican minority since 1954," he told a group of Atlanta business owners over breakfast the other day, "or we're going to be the majority. Our working assumption is that we'll be a majority. If we're a minority, we're going to move in exactly the same direction."
He was less cautious on Rush Limbaugh's syndicated radio program: "The odds are at least 2-1 we'll be the majority," he asserted, citing newspaper polls that show a majority of respondents saying they plan to vote Republican. But whether his new title is minority leader or house speaker, this one-man intifada, an Army brat who "grew up surrounded by infantry" and has devoted himself more to ferocious partisanship than to advancing legislation, already views himself in a new light.
"I've been seen as a partisan," he said, "and I am a partisan, obviously, because, a) I've been trapped in the House, which is a very partisan environment, for my entire public career in Washington, and, b) because under Reagan and Bush, it was their job to do the vision and it was my job to be a partisan soldier. That era is over."
In the new era, Gingrich remains the partisan but gets to do the vision thing too. His goal: to reshape national policy, or, in his immodest phrases, "renew American civilization" and "redirect the fate of the human race."
His remedies range from requiring students to do two hours of homework a night to overhauling the welfare state to asserting America's primacy in the world. "America is the most successful society in the history of the human race," he told an audience here. "We need to say that, frankly, we don't intend to learn much about being like Haiti, but we sure do wish Haitians would learn a lot about being like Americans."
During a break on the Limbaugh program, he suddenly appeared overwhelmed.
"This is really hard, making this happen, educating, re-educating, over and over, making a mistake, having to re-analyze," he said, his hand cupped over the phone. "I'm trying to educate a nation in the skills of self-government."
Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., who considers Gingrich a friend, says he is "a control freak."
"Newt is dangerous because he's smart, he's articulate and he's in control of his party," said Synar. "There is no dissension, and his principles and philosophy are as flexible as necessary."