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GOP 'MOB' HANGING ON TO THE CEMENT BLOCKS

If you miss Hollywood blockbusters about the mob -- betrayals, kisses of death, midnight intrigues, hit men -- the House Republicans are filling the void with "Newt's Night of Terror."

Sorry, we won't need Marlon Brando for the "Godfather" role. Try Tom Arnold -- or anybody who can do pratfalls, pies in the face and burlesque schtick.

The comic hit on House Speaker Newt Gingrich fizzled: A coup d'etat in a kindergarten. The plotters were the worst bumblers since the Mafia was hired to rub out Fidel Castro.

So last week about 20 plotters met to dump Gingrich.

The aborted Thursday Night Massacre gets murky. Rebels insist they were encouraged by Newt's team leaders, No. 2 man Dick Armey, No. 3 Tom DeLay and No. 5 Bill Paxon.

Anyway, the hit squad got cold feet. Newt -- like survival artists Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein -- escaped.

But for how long? Will Newt demand vengeance? Can he smile and forgive his traitors? Will a weakened Gingrich be saved, ironically, by Bill Clinton?

You get no straight answers on the Hill, where the rattled Republican mob resorts to the standard M.O. -- everybody's lying.

"I spent 15 hours of my life on this," said Armey, Newt's majority leader.

"I found out about its existence and moved to stop it. Ridiculous reports I joined it are ludicrous. Newt should be speaker for now and years to come."

A little truth serum, please. Plotters say Armey, whose Darth Vader mean streak made him an unlikely Republican TV front man, backed out when told he'd be bypassed as Gingrch's sub by telegenic Bill Paxon.

Oh, no, said Paxon. "I have no interest in being speaker, never have." Newt fired him anyway.

Then there's Tom DeLay, Newt's whip. Did he plot to eradicate his boss? DeLay's mum, but his spokesman cooed, "He was only an honest broker."

Plot witnesses insist DeLay told them, "I'll walk down the center aisle with you to vote Newt out. You've got to take the Speaker out. You've gotta do it now."

One guess: DeLay, in the code of the mob, will be next to feel Gingrich's cold revenge.

Sure, Gingrich's public reaction to the midnight putsch is to shrug, grin and gab of teamwork. He says confidently of Armey, "I have no hesitation about turning my back to him." Asked about vengeance against DeLay, he smiles benignly, "No, we'll all calm down." What about the anti-Newt plotters? "In a television age, three loud people make more noise than 200 quiet people."

Many compare Newt to Julius Caesar, who caught a dirk in his toga. Historian Newt laughs off the parallel: "He was thinner and probably had more hair."

But he has to sizzle at the ingrates -- most plotters were red-hot conservatives, the Class of 1994, which owed its rise to his campaigning. He praised, coddled, gave them plum committee slots. Armey, DeLay and Paxon were handpicked lieutenants. Et tu, Dick, Tom and Bill?

Oddly, Newt escaped a lynch mob when Republicans should be celebrating a rebirth of the Reagan Revolution -- a balanced budget and tax cut at hand. But plotters were furious at Gingrich's free-lancing, pop-off quotes, surrenders to Clinton, the flap over his $300,000 fine, his disastrous poll numbers that endanger them in 1998.

In January, the guess here was Gingrich wouldn't last a year as speaker. New prediction: He's out by November.

Sure, Gingrich will smooth over his dysfunctional family, pacify the plotters. Maybe like the movie's Don Corleone he'll obey the gangland axiom: "Keep your friends close, your enemies closer."

But if I were Tom DeLay, I'd be wearing a Kevlar vest.

Philadelphia Daily News

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