Newt Gingrich

updated 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

No one could accuse Newt Gingrich of charming his way to the top. Since 1978, when the tart-tongued Georgian was first elected to the House of Representatives, he has found his niche as the Republicans' verbal nuke-meister, a congressional street fighter who revels in overkill. "You have to give the press confrontations," he once said. "When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate."

Whatever lessons the former West Georgia College assistant history professor may have tried to teach in the past, voters this year seemed to be getting the message. Now they'll be getting Gingrich as well. With Republicans controlling Congress, Gingrich, 51, will become the first GOP Speaker of the House in 40 years. And he won't be reticent about making his mark. "Newt sees his role as a catalyst for change, and he wants to be a great Speaker," says GOP strategist Ed Rollins. "He spends every waking moment devoted to his cause. Anyone who underestimates him does so at their own peril.

Like Bill Clinton, however, Gingrich carries some interesting personal baggage. Both men avoided the Vietnam draft through deferment, both smoked pot in graduate school—though only Gingrich admits to inhaling—and both have had problems with women. In Gingrich's case, the woman is his ex-wife, Jackie Battley, his former high school math teacher, whom he married at age 19. They divorced 18 years later—after he reportedly presented her with papers to sign while she was recovering from cancer surgery—and he married Marianne Ginther, 43, a business consultant. Afterward, Battley took Gingrich to court at least twice asking for increased alimony and child support for their two daughters, now grown.

All of this may be far less significant than how Gingrich comports himself as Speaker—and as a possible presidential hopeful. "Of course, I'll change some," he says. "I was the middle linebacker of the Republican party, and now I'm head coach." But his mother, Kathleen Gingrich, 68, still expects Sonny to make the big hits. Says she: "That's just Newtie."

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