Perfect 'Great Debate' Candidate Bowed Out

I AM not just being a contrarian when I run against the apparent tide of public opinion and say I was disappointed when House Speaker Newt Gingrich decided not to seek the presidency.

It's not that I think that Gingrich should be president or that I want him to be president. It's just that the Speaker is the logical person to debate President Clinton on the Big Issue that, down deep, most concerns Americans:

Should the social-program thrust, initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt continue? Or should social programs be curbed and the operation of many of them be returned from the federal government to the states?

The liberals would frame the debate as a contest between those who believe in compassionate government and the Grinches of this world. The conservatives would define the issue as a battle of those who believe in a frugal government against the big spenders.

That's the Great Debate that has been center stage since the Republicans, led by Mr. Gingrich, took over Congress less than a year ago. It's behind the protracted budget fight. It will underlie every domestic issue that the candidates will be fighting over next fall.

Sen. Bob Dole has, of course, been a highly visible leader of the conservative cause. So has Sen. Phil Gramm. But it is Gingrich who has become the unchallengeable leader of the Republican Revolution.

Conservatives love Newt. They love the way he stands up to the intellectuals and proves - as they see it - that he is as good with words and ideas as they are. And they love his feisty style.

Liberals hate ''Newty,'' as some derisively call him. They see him as the enemy - a mean-spirited fellow who is leading an effort to change government in a way that will help those who have and hurt those who have not or have less.

Polls that Gingrich probably was reading when he decided against the presidency do, indeed, show that the Speaker's negatives are very high. That's because, in great part, he is being portrayed quite effectively by the opposition as a bad guy. It's also because Gingrich sometimes damages himself by saying some very outrageous things. His comments at a recent Monitor breakfast about being snubbed on a plane-ride with the president are a good example of this.

The president's negatives are high, too, though not as high as Gingrich's. All along since he became president the public's trust in Clinton has been low.

These are the two men who should be fighting it out on the direction this country should be taking. Like most contests of this kind the candidates would probably blur their message. Clinton would say he is frugal as well as compassionate and Gingrich would say that his approach is a kind of compassionate conservatism. But the voters would know what's at stake. They would know who stands for what. That's an election contest that the public should welcome.

But Gingrich isn't likely to change his mind about running. He's too preoccupied with the continued budget fight and believes, quite correctly, that he's the only one who can hold the GOP troops on the Hill together in this battle. And that struggle looks like it will go on and on - beyond the time when Gingrich could find the money to put together the organization he would need in the primaries.

Oh, yes, I'm assuming in all this that Gingrich could jump in and win the GOP nomination. Republicans are ready for someone else besides Dole and Gramm, the current leaders. They see the polls that show the increasing percentages by which these men lag behind the president. They want someone who looks like a winner. I think that Gingrich might well have been able to persuade these GOP voters that he was the man for them.

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