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REPUBLICANS

Forgive the new Republicans in Congress if they have an identity crisis.

On the one hand, they are being heralded as conquering heroes, even before they are sworn in. Newt Gingrich, their new raj, blesses them as "the moment in history." Jack Kemp, a longtime leader in the conservative movement, calls them "the most important people in Washington," their election even more far-reaching than Ronald Reagan's.The hotel here in which they are meeting has handed them obsequious letters, along with complimentary brandies and chocolate-covered strawberries, telling them they are held in "genuine esteem and regard" and that the staff is "at your beck and call."

At the same time, another message is coming through: Not so fast, big guy. Washington has a way of skewing priorities, chewing people up and tearing apart families. And once you are gone, no one will know you were here.

This message was delivered most effectively by Tom Barrett, a marriage and family counselor, who spoke to about 60 Republican freshmen at a three-day orientation sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington research organization.

"When you leave Washington, you may miss Washington, but Washington will not miss you," Barrett warned the freshmen. "Take pictures out of the paper of some of the old bulls that are gone - Rostenkowski, Foley, Brooks. These days, who cares about them?

"This place won't skip a beat if you are gone," he added. "In Washington, nobody looks back. They only live in the immediate present - and in their own future."

The Republican freshmen seem acutely aware of their own transience, especially since they all advocate term limits.

"I told my choir director to fax me the music," said Sue Kelly, a 58-year-old former rape-crisis counselor who beat Hamilton Fish Jr. in New York's Westchester County in November. Kelly plans to be home regularly enough to keep her spot in the alto section at the Bedford Presbyterian Church.

Steve Largent, the 39-year-old former wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, now a freshman congressman from Oklahoma, said he was approaching politics the way he approached his football career.

"You play one year at a time and you're never more than one play away from the end of your career," he said. "And when you leave, you're like a hole in the ocean. It fills up like that." He snapped his fingers. "And the game goes right on ahead without you."

Like Largent, most of the freshmen are not moving their families to Washington.

"I don't want to become a Washingtonian," said John Shadegg, 45, a former assistant state attorney general from Arizona, from where he will commute every week. "I have a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old to get home to, and that gives me great motivation to get on that plane."

Many freshmen said they wanted to guard against what happened to the late-but-not-lamented "Reform Congress" of 1992.

"That class was co-opted by their own leadership before they were ever sworn in," said Enid Waldholtz of Utah, 36, a lawyer and former national chairwoman of the Young Republicans. "Tom Foley and other leaders went around to groups of freshmen and said, basically, `We know you ran as reformers, but here's what you need to do to be effective in Congress.'

"This time," she added, "not only do we have the commitment ourselves to get the reforms through, but the person leading the charge is the speaker of the House."

Like everyone else here, she reveres Gingrich, the house speaker in waiting who made her the first freshman Republican since 1915 to sit on the all-important Rules Committee. (Her fellow freshmen bow exaggeratedly in her presence.)

Asked how far her loyalty to Gingrich went, she replied, "The leadership didn't send me here; the people of Salt Lake City did."

As Waldholtz was being interviewed at a cocktail reception, another freshman, David Weldon, a 41-year-old doctor from Florida, interrupted to ask her to sign a petition by the class asking President Clinton to "condemn" Jesse Jackson for linking the Christian Coalition with Nazis and slavery.

"My mother fled the Nazis and my grandmother died because of the Nazis," Waldholtz said as she scribbled her signature. She is a Mormon herself, and like many others in her class, wary of a school prayer amendment that Gingrich has put on their agenda for later next year.