Gingrich and Clinton Play Well in Granite State

IN the end, Speaker Newt Gingrich returns to Washington from a New Hampshire tour with most of what he wanted: lots of media exposure, increased stature, and four moose sightings.

Stalked every step of the way by a press mob usually seen only on presidential excursions, Mr. Gingrich was able to cement his position as a sort of alternative president and expand his influence over the Republican Party.

President Clinton, for his part, was able to telegraph a moderate image and improve his political standing in his first foray during this campaign season into the Granite State.

In their historic encounter in this small New England mill town, both men changed at least one Washington political calculation - that the politics of 1995 are necessarily bitter and partisan. They outlined their differences on a host of the most important issues facing the United States, from Medicare to the United Nations, without accusing each other of base motives.

By doing so, both painted themselves as politicians with broad, if differing, visions of where they think the country should go. For the moment, at least, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and other challengers for the GOP presidential nomination were eclipsed.

Gingrich benefits by anything "that puts him in the role of statesman," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

"The hardest thing to do in [Washington] is to change your image," says Ronald Kaufman, who was President Bush's political director. He says Gingrich has had a hard time transforming his public portrait from a backbencher and loner to Speaker of the House. "What happened this week was that the transformation became complete.... People will look at him in a new way."

Historic meeting

The meeting was at once historic, cordial, and surreal.

The setting was a backyard picnic on Sunday at a brown-shingled senior-citizens' home. Smoke from barbecuing chicken wafted through the crowd of 250 seniors wearing white hats with the blue logo of the National Council of Senior Citizens. The Stevens High School jazz band kept toes tapping, playing big-band tunes.

Sitting under threatening skies at long tables covered by white paper and red, white, and blue ribbons, the Claremont citizens ignored a media mob almost as numerous as the audience and watched President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich (R) of Georgia engage in a cool discussion of hot-button issues.

It was, everyone seemed to agree, the kind of event that can happen only in New Hampshire, where a Sunday picnic can turn into an international event. It was the first time since a 1920s visit from Calvin Coolidge that a sitting president graced this city of red-brick buildings and factory houses.

And it was probably the first time ever that a president and a Speaker sat down together outside of Washington for a public discussion.

The two men minded their manners, each giving the other credit for good ideas. Spokesman from both sides claimed that this is the kind of relationship the two have in Washington when discussing the business of government out of the limelight.

"Now we have a lot of differences ... but we still have some areas where we can work together," Clinton said. "I think the most important thing is that we identify clearly the places where we disagree, but then make our best effort, our dead-level best effort, to work together to move this country forward."

The first surprise of the afternoon was an agreement by the two men, in response to a question from the audience, to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to look at lobbying and campaign-finance reform.

Less surprising was the occasional philosophical gulf between the two. On Medicare, Gingrich said the Republicans' proposed cuts in spending growth would still provide for a 33 percent increase in Medicare spending by 2002. Clinton pointed out that that is only about 4 percent a year and said the cuts were too severe.

The Speaker called for revisiting the United Nations command-and-control structure for its peacekeeping forces, a structure he called "a nightmare." Clinton defended UN peacekeeping, saying it had accomplished a great deal of good in places like Cambodia and had greatly reduced the number of civilian deaths in Bosnia.

Clinton's motives

Political observers were left wondering why Clinton agreed to the event in the first place. "It absolutely boosts Gingrich," says Mr. Sabato. "I can't really understand how Clinton stumbled into it." One explanation might be that Clinton did not expect the Speaker's positive response when he suggested that the two get together while they were both in New Hampshire. Once Gingrich accepted, the theory goes, the president had no choice but to go ahead.

A second is that Clinton knew this audience was his and felt he would outperform the Speaker in the president's tried-and-true town-meeting format. That didn't happen.

Sabato suggests the president is trying to boost a Gingrich presidential bid, believing that he can defeat the Speaker in a head-to-head contest, something not so certain if current front-runner Dole is the GOP nominee.

The Speaker clearly softened his image with at least some of the audience. "I enjoyed the president 100 percent," said Therese Perron of Claremont. "Gingrich was OK. I've got nothing bad to say about him, and I'm a lifelong Democrat."

Another Democrat, Doris Taimi of nearby Newport, N.H., said she came away hopeful. "I told Mr. Gingrich that I approached this with negative feelings to him and his ideas, but that now I'm looking at him in a different light.... If he really means what he said, working together is the only way to accomplish anything."

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