Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said yesterday the chances were "very, very slim" that he would run for the presidency next year and all but admitted that in an election against President Bill Clinton he would lose.
Mr Gingrich was speaking on NBC television's Meet the Press at a time of particularly sour relations between the Republican-led Congress and the White House. Because of Mr Clinton's refusal to sign a Republican spending bill, the indications are that much of the federal government will be shut down tomorrow, with more than 800,000 civil servants likely to be told not to report for work.
Political commentators have turned to the classic images of American macho mythology - "High Noon", "game of chicken", "who will blink first?" - to characterise the showdown between the President and Congress. While neither side will explicitly acknowledge it, what is at stake is the popularity of each with the American public.
President Clinton is betting that if he toughs it out he will help to create the sort of public perceptions necessary for him to be re-elected next year. Mr Gingrich and his congressional cohorts are hoping they will be applauded for sticking to their guns, battling to reduce the federal budget, and that the President will receive the lion's share of the blame for the impending government shutdown.
It is the Republicans who appear to be taking the greater risk - a view Mr Gingrich seems to share. In the NBC interview, he said Mr Clinton would beat him in a "personality contest". If an election race between him and the President were to be "about personalities, he'd win", Mr Gingrich said. "He's remarkably good at pleasing people.''
The Speaker was responding to the results of the latest polls. These show he is lagging far behind Mr Clinton in popularity (28 per cent to 62 per cent); that Mr Clinton's approval ratings generally, at 52 per cent, are higher than at any point in 18 months, and higher than those of the Republican Congress or any of the Republican presidential candidates, including the front-runner, Bob Dole, the majority leader in the Senate.
The notion is taking hold in the White House that the Republican bubble has burst. The failure of the Republicans to sustain their winning momentum in state and mayoral elections held countrywide last week is being widely interpreted as symptomatic of a growing public unease about Mr Gingrich's zeal to balance the budget by making deep cuts in welfare spending.
Hardliners in the congressional Republican caucus have insisted that the spending bill Mr Clinton would have to sign today to keep the government functioning should include budget-cutting commitments which the Democrats reject.
Mr Clinton believes he is being blackmailed. "I will not allow them to impose new, immediate cuts in Medicare [federal health care for the elderly], education and the environment as a condition of keeping the government open," he said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.
Mr Clinton spoke on the phone to both Mr Gingrich and Mr Dole on Saturday. Mr Gingrich complained that the President had "basically hung up on us". Mr Dole complained that the President had in effect told him to "get lost". But Mr Clinton was not complaining. For the first time in a long while the Republicans are feeling more uncomfortable than he is. Reflecting the President's newly confident mood, White House officials said yesterday that he was unlikely to heed a call from Mr Gingrich to respond to the looming domestic crisis by cancelling a scheduled trip to Japan this weekend.