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Quiet speaker-to-be likely to stay that way

His new title will be speaker of the House, but so far Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert has done precious little talking.

The mild-mannered six-term conservative's low profile since his rise to power two weeks ago presents a stark contrast to that of his loquacious predecessor, Rep. Newt Gingrich, who weighed in on virtually every issue and generated no shortage of controversies.

Hastert ascends to the speakership this week, assuming a position behind only the vice president in line to the presidency.

"There are expectations that the speaker will be available, but it's certainly not codified anywhere that the speaker has to be," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University expert on Congress. "We would expect the speaker to be more vocal, particularly when the party does not have the White House, because there has to be somebody out there saying something just to brace up the morale of the opposition."

In a brief meeting with reporters last week in Batavia, Ill., one of his few public appearances, Hastert scolded his House colleagues. "To heal the wounds of Congress we need to get to work," Hastert said. "We need to start to achieve things. And I think that's what will restore the American people's faith in Congress."

Hastert has used what little time he has had on preparing the House for smooth operations. He has spoken with almost every GOP member, said his spokesman, Pete Jeffries.

Jeffries said another reason his boss has avoided the spotlight is Hastert does not want to seem presumptuous. Although it is a near certainty that Republicans will nominate him Tuesday as speaker, to be followed by formal election the next day, Hastert is taking no chances.

Still, even after he officially takes the gavel, little change is likely in Hastert's approach. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato ventured that Hastert's behind-the-scenes approach to the job will make him among the least-recognizable congressional leaders of modern times.

The low profile is true to Hastert's longtime style as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker. And he has made clear in his few public comments that he plans to let more effective and telegenic communicators do the talking for the party, while he stays "in the shadows" forging a strong record of accomplishments for the House.

Hastert's nuts-and-bolts focus signals a return to a pre-Gingrich speaker model, observers said. "He'll be much more inclined to see that the trains get there on time," said Hastert's old mentor, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill.

Most are happy with that, agreeing that the best leadership Hastert can provide the House _ and his party _ is to stay his current course. "There was a time for a visionary. Now it's time to get things done," said fellow Illinois Republican Tom Ewing, a close Hastert friend.

Moreover, with House Republicans' majority cut down to 223-211, "he's going to have his hands full just getting one train to run on time," Sabato said.

Ralph Reed, a GOP consultant and onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition, said perhaps Hastert's greatest gift to Republicans is that he does not offer Democrats an automatic star for negative ads in 2000:

"We really have spent a lot of the last four years running down rabbit trails with firehoses putting out fires, usually caused by some leader's tactical blunder. Denny, to borrow a phrase from an earlier time, is an altogether fortuitous return to normalcy."