NEWT GINGRICH is already running for president. Listen to what people are calling, by a slip of the tongue or otherwise, his inaugural speech as Speaker: He was reaching out not just to his fellow House members but to all Americans. He would help the poor, work with the minority, rule with compassion, be Speaker of all the people.
In fact, Mr. Gingrich, speaking extemporaneously for the most part, could well have been delivering a presidential inaugural address. It was strange. Wasn't there a president of the United States sitting in the White House only a few blocks away? Yet here was someone of lesser rank reaching out with magnanimity to the nation's chief executive.
And then, within a few days, President Clinton was having Gingrich over for a friendly conversation in which he pledged to cooperate with the new Speaker on the legislative reform the voters had called for in November.
One respected Washington observer said that what it came down to was that Mr. Clinton has become inconsequential. I asked Richard Armey, the new GOP House majority leader, about this, and he indicated that Clinton could gain credibility again only by cooperating with the Republicans - and that he was happy to see this cooperation.
But can a president be this cooperative and still be presidential? How can Congress be the initiator? Isn't that the president's job? Clinton doesn't seem to see that he's resigning himself to a secondary role. Asked about Gingrich, the president conceded that the Speaker had become the ``pivotal'' leader in Washington - ``because of his ideas.''
But Newt Gingrich is not only relishing his ascendency in Washington, he is preparing for the next step: running for president. The Georgian sees 1996 as an extension of his current challenge of Clinton. He feels he has the president under his thumb now and he is confident that he is the person to oust Clinton two years from now.
Gingrich knows that he is the darling of conservatives but must vie with the likes of Dole and Gramm for the presidential nomination. He's confident, though, that by the time the next 100 days are over - and his legislative agenda is enacted - he will be the clear leader of the conservative cause.
But the new Speaker also knows that while he could win the GOP nomination simply with the backing of conservative voters, he won't reach the White House unless he can win over Republican moderates, most of whom are slow to warm up to a politician who, in their eyes, is lacking in compassion.
So the ``new Newt'' that emerged in his inaugural speech was more than magnanimity toward the losers - it was also a reaching out to those many Republicans who are uncomfortable with Gingrich the conservative revolutionary.
So Gingrich was saying to these Republicans, many of whom voted for Clinton in 1992: ``I'm not a hard-line conservative. I will work with the Democrats to see to it that we care for the poor and disadvantaged. I can be cooperative as well as confrontational. You do not have to be afraid of me.''
Can Gingrich hold on to his power? Can he keep the president on the defensive - or even on the run? He's off to a good start. As that great sportscaster, Red Barber, would put it: He's in the catbird seat.