THE Republican Party is bracing itself for a tough battle for the right to lead it out of the doldrums after House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down as a surprise victim of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Several Congressmen have already entered the race for Capitol Hill's most powerful job after the Georgia Republican quit in the wake of Tuesday's bitter disappointment at the polls. The Republican Party lost five seats to President Bill Clinton's Democrats in the House in what many saw as a clear rejection by voters of the Republican pursuit of the President over the Lewinsky affair, and a lack of focus on policy issues. 'We didn't understand that people would frankly just get fed up with the existence of the topic,' Mr Gingrich admitted the next day, referring to Ms Lewinsky, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's explicit report and Mr Clinton's looming impeachment hearings, which have now been scaled back. Even as colleagues jostled for position to replace Mr Gingrich, tributes poured in for the feisty conservative whose energy propelled the party to a triumphant takeover of both Houses of Congress in 1994. Mr Gingrich's decision on Friday to quit came after a flurry of telephone calls, with colleagues convincing him he could not withstand a growing rebellion in the ranks from members who blamed him for the mid-term election fiasco. 'The Republican conference needs to be unified and it is time for me to move forward, where I believe I still have a significant role to play for our country and our party,' Mr Gingrich said. 'My party will have my full support and I will do all I can to help us win in 2000.' In an emotional final conference call to colleagues, Mr Gingrich expressed bitterness that he was having to step down to prevent 'cannibals' from causing a bloodbath in the party. Praising him as a 'worthy adversary', President Clinton said: 'Despite our profound differences, I appreciate those times we were able to work together in the national interest, especially his strong support for America's continuing leadership for freedom, peace and prosperity in the world.' But many speculated the White House was sorry to see its favourite foe step down. National polls repeatedly showed the vitriolic Mr Gingrich as one of the most unpopular politicians in the country - and an easy political punching bag for the Democrats. The Republicans' House leader, Richard Armey, said: 'Newt Gingrich deserves a place in history right next to Ronald Reagan. 'Over the last 20 years, Newt has changed America and transformed the House of Representatives.' Mr Armey, effectively second-in-command to the Speaker, faces a challenge to his own position, from Congressman Steve Largent - a charismatic former professional football player and strident member of the Republicans' youthful right wing. Robert Livingston, a 55-year-old contender who had stepped up to challenge Mr Gingrich even before the resignation, is now the man to beat for the Speaker's job. The Congressman, a sometimes bad-tempered former Gingrich loyalist, could have trouble pacifying the party's restless conservatives. 'Revolutionising takes many talents,' Mr Livingston said of the outgoing Speaker. 'Day-to-day governing takes others. I believe I have those talents.' Within hours, senior Republican Christopher Cox also announced his candidacy for the job. The 46-year-old is well known to China as a major critic, and is current chairing a House probe into US satellite technology transfers to Beijing. Bill Archer, a 70-year-old elder statesman known as the party's major proponent of tax cuts, could mount a strong challenge if, as is likely, he joins the race. There was little in the way of tribute from Mr Gingrich's adversaries in the House.