WASHINGTON — FOR some politicians, there's nothing quite like the thrill, the attention, the challenge ... of not running for president.
That's right - a noncampaign. While actually mounting a challenge for the Oval Office requires grinding work and a capacity to absorb humiliation, flirting with candidacy can boost your reputation at no risk to employment status. And who knows? Maybe all the declared candidates will spontaneously combust, and the party really will turn to you.
The current political cycle seems a particularly good one for noncandidacies. Newt Gingrich, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Ross Perot, and Lowell Weicker have all been subject to serious speculation about their future plans.
Speaker Gingrich, in particular, seems to have enjoyed twitting the press about his political intentions. Few analysts expect him to be a presidential candidate in 1996 - but many think he could be positioning himself for a try at a future date.
"Remember, Newt has promised he would be speaker only six years," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station. "That coincides with the next presidential election, in 2000."
Gingrich today begins a swing through the early primary state of New Hampshire that has all the trappings of a campaign swing, from meetings with local potential supporters to a following pack of news hounds larger than any announced candidate has drawn in some time.
Not that all those cameras are likely to catch anything more newsworthy than a shot of animal-lover Newt looking at a New Hampshire moose. In public, the Speaker says flatly that he's not running for president. Not running now, anyway.
It's a carefully hedged denial. Listen to his spokesman, Tony Blankley, explaining his boss's position earlier this week: "He's not currently a candidate but he's not making any ... statements precluding the possibility."
In other words, who would I be to resist an uprising of support among my party fellows, sweeping me forward in an irresistible draft?
It's the kind of hedging that former New York Governor Mario Cuomo engaged in for years. More recently, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell has struck something of the same position.
Never mind that there is almost no possibility of a party turning away from those currently running.
"All these draft scenarios have not happened since Adlai Stevenson was drafted by the Democrats in 1952," points out George Washington University political scientist Leo Ribuffo. "There isn't going to be a deadlocked convention."
GINGRICH likely knows that he is now a divisive figure in the nation, and that some in the GOP are beginning to grumble that he's drawing much-needed attention away from the serious candidates.
He's undoubtedly seen the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, which show him trailing far behind front-runner and Senate majority leader Bob Dole as the presidential candidate choice of Republican voters.
But even his opponents admit that the Speaker is a wily politician, and there are distinct advantages to a noncandidacy. Among them:
* More attention for your issues. Lately, legislative action in the Senate has tended to overshadow earlier votes on the Contract With America in the House. President Clinton has made something of a public comeback. By focusing news media attention on himself, House Speaker Gingrich implicitly gets more attention for the House Republican agenda.
Jesse Jackson, for instance, has done his best to pull the Democratic Party to the left through the years by flirting with a presidential bid. Now he's at it again. Lately he has said that his options remain open for a third-party bid.
Ross Perot has similarly kept his fiscal concerns before the public eye via the same will-he-or-won't-he speculation. Now he's holding a high-profile August economic conference that he says "has nothing to do" with a possible third-party bid.
* Increased national profile for you. If Speaker Newt ever is going to run for president, he has to have high name recognition in the country at large.
Hard as it is for those who live in Washington to believe, much of the country has never heard of the gray-haired, hyperactive Speaker. So, the more TV time he gets now, the easier it will be to actually run the next time around.
* A lower national profile for your rivals. By showing the stir he can create among reporters and the party faithful, Gingrich may be siphoning support away from his Capitol Hill legislative rival, Senator Dole. And he points out the weaknesses of the supporting cast of those also-running.
He may not be doing this on purpose - but some in the party wish he would be more firm in his denials of interest, so that the race can continue undisturbed.
* Book sales. Gingrich has two books coming out soon - a novel and a nonfiction political call to action. Why should he close the door on a run for president, and lose all the resultant media attention, just prior to publication?
Former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, currently out on a nationwide book tour, is in the same position. So is General Powell, whose memoirs come out in the fall.