Even while trying to convince fellow House Republicans that he could be as reasonable as the next guy, Newt Gingrich couldn't bank the fire within.

At a news conference called last week to show off his charm, the Georgia congressman wound up belitting fellow Republicans who might be shy about installing a scorched-earth firebrand as their party's No. 2 leader in the House.Gingrich's election Wednesday as party whip is seen as a watershed for the future of the party - and maybe for the future of relations between the parties.

At issue was whether Republicans wanted to promote a guerrilla who believes that combat is the normal condition in Congress. He also is Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright's principal tormentor.

Gingrich, 45, berates his Republican colleagues for a hat-in-hand approach to the Democrats who run the place. They have developed a "permanent minority" mentality, he says; they haven't been in the majority since he was 11.

"We tend to say, `Oh, gee, they're in charge, how can we be nice enough to them that they'll let us pretend we're part of the game?' " Gingrich told reporters. "I represent the wing of the party that says fine, we'll take up that challenge."

So the 174-member GOP minority was asked to choose between Gingrich and Rep. Ed Madigan of Illinois, a conciliator of the get-along, go-along school toward which Gingrich feels such contempt. The vote tally wasn't given.

"Madigan is a perfectly fine representative of the classic legislative model of a whip," he said, with faint praise. "If that's what the party wants and it would prefer to remain in the minority."

The vacancy opened when President Bush installed Republican Whip Dick Cheney in the Pentagon after the Senate rejected John Tower.

Within minutes, Gingrich was on the phone, lining up votes in a bid to move from back bench to front line.

His promise is that the tactic that made him a Republican folk hero can create a Republican House majority.

The tactic: Carry House battles off the floor, to the nation. Let the public see the light and make Congress feel the heat.

Television's the trick. When the C-Span cable network started carrying uninterrupted House sessions, Gingrich and other articulate, ideological and largely ignored conservatives discovered an audience out there.

"We'd fly to some small town in the Midwest and people at a cocktail party would know what went on that day in Congress," marveled a Republican spokesman, Steve Lotterer, reflecting on C-Span's impact.

When Gingrich attacked Democrats as blind to communism, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., then the speaker, took offense. He considered curbing television, thought better of it, finally ordered the cameras to pan the deserted chamber to show the home audience these conservatives were talking to themselves.

Once O'Neill let his contempt show. Forswearing the chair, the speaker took the floor, wagged a finger at Gingrich, accused him of "the lowest thing I've seen in my 32 years in Congress" - and underwent the humiliation of being ruled out of order for his personal attack.

Gingrich has that ability to make people react. He is a forceful debater. His sentences pour out rounded, parsed, suitable for framing.

The son of a career soldier, he was born in Harrisburg, Pa., but adopted Georgia. Divorced and remarried, he is a Baptist deacon. He taught history and environmental studies at West Georgia College and ran for Congress three times before winning.

He once spent 24 hours in a wheelchair, saying he wanted to better understand the handicapped.

He introduced a bill in 1981 to provide for new American states in outer space and proposed a plan in 1982 to industrialize and militarize space.

He has proposed a way to replace Social Security. He groused that the Reagan administration was "feeding the liberal welfare state instead of changing it." And he irked conservatives by pressuring South Africa to get rid of apartheid.