House Democrats are circling their wagons around Speaker Jim Wright for a shootout they know he may not survive.

The bushy-browed Texan will be firmly in command of the defending Democrats in the fight for his political life.Fainthearts should ride off now because a lot of blood is about to be spilled, not all of it Wright's.

Some observers believe it already is inevitable that Wright will become the first of 48 House speakers to be forced from the job.

Newt Gingrich, the minority whip from Georgia who filed the ethics charges last June, has dubbed Wright "the least ethical speaker in the 20th century."

But it will be difficult for the Republicans to prove in a House controlled by Democrats for 34 years that Wright used his office for financial gain.

Some Republican strategists are touting the ethics issue as one the GOP can use to gain seats in the House.

Other analysts disagree, arguing that it is difficult to make corruption a partisan issue because Americans doubt that ethics is a strong suit of most politicians, regardless of party.

In any case, House Democrats are lining up publicly with Wright for the fight to clear his name and redeem his leadership.

The risk of doing that would seem to be fairly low in view of the current 98 percent re-election rate for congressional incumbents.

But the Democrats know they need an unsullied speaker as part of a credible leadership base from which a strong nominee can emerge for the 1992 presidential race.

They don't want to be forced to limp along with a House speaker crippled by lingering doubts of his innocence.

They also have reason to worry that Gingrich and his GOP guerrillas in the House may attack Rep. Tony Coelho, the No. 3 Democratic leader.

The Washington Post said Coelho profited from junk bonds recorded as bought by his campaign committee, but the Californian said the record was wrong.

Democratic Rep. Charles Wilson predicted his fellow Texan "will survive" but warned of "a little revenge here and there" from Republicans still smarting from the Democratic-led rejection of Texan John Tower as President Bush's defense secretary.