House Republicans narrowly elected conservative activist Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia as their assistant leader Wednesday, succeeding former Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming, who resigned to become defense secretary.

Gingrich, a six-term House member who has gained national attention for his attacks on House Democratic leaders, defeated Rep. Edward Madigan, R-Ill., who was seen as the candidate of his party's moderate wing.Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a popular conservative considered a strong contender for the leadership post, announced at the start of the meeting that he was not a candidate.

The final tally was 87-85, with one absence and one improperly cast ballot that was thrown out. Despite the narrowness of the victory, however, Hyde and others said Gingrich would do well.

"He's smart enough to know we have to achieve, not just fight. You can say what you want about Newt, but he's smart. He'll mature to the job," Hyde said.

Others said that despite his confrontational manner, Gingrich recognizes the need to cooperate at times with the Democrats.

The election came down to a contest between two men with starkly contrasting styles - Gingrich, a conservative firebrand, and Madigan, a low-key moderate little known outside Washington and his home district.

The election also was held at a time when the leadership of the majority House Democrats is in uncertainty because of an ethics investigation of Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas.

Before the vote, Madigan, 53, claimed to have lined up the votes of 93 of the 174 House Republicans, five more than needed to win, but Gingrich, 45, expressed confidence he would win.

Gingrich, a former history professor, was making his first bid for a leadership post. He was elected to the House in 1978 and quickly staked out a role as leader of a group of conservative "Young Turks" who often urged the GOP leadership to adopt a more aggressive approach in dealing with the Democrats.

He gained national media attention with his demands for strict disciplinary action against House members accused of ethics violations, and he was the most vocal and persistent of those calling for an ethics committee investigation of Wright.

That investigation, which was begun in June, was completed last month, and the committee this week began deliberating whether the massive report points to any violations of House rules. The panel is not expected to reach a decision until next month, but many House Democrats fear the report will fault Wright and undermine his position as speaker.

Ironically, one of the issues in the Wright case involves the publishing arrangements for one of Wright's books, for which he received an unusually large royalty. Just this week Gingrich's own book publishing venture came under question because of the unusual partnership set up to raise money to promote sales of his book.

Gingrich said the book issue was only a momentary distraction in his race and did not harm his chances.