Gingrich's 100 Days: He Won't Say 'No'

IT'S fun and sometimes productive to see if you can't persuade a potential presidential candidate -- Newt Gingrich in this instance -- to disclose that despite denials in the past he really has his eye on running in 1996.

I tried this at breakfast the other morning and I think the back-and-forth between the two of us is enlightening. The Speaker isn't saying yes and he isn't saying no. But I think he's keeping the door open:

Q: ''Unquestionably, Mr. Speaker, you are the hottest article in the Republican Party these days. In a small corner of your mind, in the middle of the night, has it ever occurred to you that [your highly visible position] might be a springboard for running for president next year?''

A: [Laughing.] ''The headline out of this session is going to have to be: Terrific briefing on the budget -- Gingrich waffles again on the presidency.''

Here Gingrich added: ''That's a logical quesiton of yours, a terrific question. But I don't have to answer it.''

What is also logical, it seems to me, is that by next year a man who daily vies with the president for the headlines may have become highly regarded by Republicans everywhere. If by that time the Republicans in both houses have passed most of the Contract With America and been instrumental in bringing about a balanced budget, and if Gingrich is perceived as being mainly responsible for these achievements, then the Speaker -- weighing his political position -- may well decide the moment is right to seek the presidency.

Also, look at the way Gingrich must face the political future: If a Republican is elected president, and it is anyone except himself who is elected, he will move into a secondary role. Only by himself becoming that Republican who wins the White House in '96 can he expect to continue his role of tremendous political influence.

Oh, yes, Gingrich would have to compete with a crowded field of candidates. But a Speaker who may well be emerging as one of the strongest leaders who ever held that position, and who possesses a unique talent for holding the headlines, would make quite a splash. Maybe the public would find him too contentious. Indeed, current polls show that more people dislike him than like him. But he could well take the conservative vote away from Bob Dole and Phil Gramm; and that vote will be decisive in most GOP primaries.

And against Bill Clinton? What a debate! If given the opportunity, they both could talk all night.

At the breakfast the Speaker was asked how much of the Contract With America must be passed for the Republican Party (and, indeed, himself) to be able to go to the voters in 1996 and say, ''We responded.'' He answered that simply saying, ''We've had a good hundred days'' would not be enough. He added that the Republicans must ''sustain a momentum of change -- so that people in early 1996 perceive us to be genuinely different.''

Asked for specifics on how the Republicans must respond to show that they have been architects of real change, Gingrich said: ''I think that the Senate must pass some 60 to 70 percent of the Contract. And I think the president must either sign half of it or more, or the disagreements must be so vivid that people understand the reason they are being frustrated is the opposition from the Democrats.''

A few days after this breakfast the Gingrich-led House passed a tax cut that Democrats, shortly before, had said was in ''trouble'' because of so-called ''dissident'' Republicans. Most Republicans and many Democrats joined in an important victory for the Contract With America.

So Gingrich and the Republicans continue to keep up this momentum for change, which of itself provides encouragement to the Speaker to make a move toward the presidency next year.

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