Newt keeps them guessing on a run at 1996

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The Independent Online

in Washington

As a silly season story, it is the political world's answer to the live-on-TV chase down a California highway, almost a year ago to the day, which launched the O J Simpson story as a galactic media phenomenon. This weekend the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, is going to New Hampshire, to stare a moose in the eye. And 200 journalists will be with him to cover his every move.

Right now New Hampshire is not just any state. Nor is Mr Gingrich- hailed by admirers as the greatest political thinker since Plato but a man others believe would have flourished no less mightily in a 1923 Munich beer hall - an ordinary politician.

Revere him or loathe him - and he inspires everything except indifference - he is the most compelling and mesmerising figure in Washington. All of which, in a city which revolves around the White House, leads to the inevitable question, one that the Speaker does absolutely nothing to discourage: is he planning a run for the 1996 Republican Nomination?

From a conventional perspective, he is certainly behaving as if he is. What candidate is not busily courting New Hampshire, which holds the first and perhaps decisive primary next 20 February? And why else should Mr Gingrichbother to address the Chamber of Commerce from Iowa, whose hardly less important voter caucuses take place a week earlier? But Mr Gingrich is no ordinary politician. Which merely increases the fascination with him.

When Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and clear front-runner for the nomination, pays one of his countless visits to New Hampshire, perhaps a dozen reporters tag along. A lesser White House candidate is lucky to attract half that number. Not Mr Gingrich, who is not even in the race but who will be followed by four times as many reporters as will accompany President Bill Clinton when he travels to the state on Sunday. And the Speaker unabashedly adores every second in the limelight, almost contemptuous of the reporters hanging on his every word.

"I'm just hanging out and having a good time," he taunted the attendant flock one morning this week. "As long as I can get four busloads of reporters to trail along, then I'm winning. I don't have to announce for anything. I just have to say, 'Gee, show up at the next press conference and we'll talk some more.' ''

Business Week inquired under what circumstances he would run? "If seven million people sign a petition asking me." Then he might throw his hat into the ring? "No," Mr Gingrich told a business audience a few days later, "Now that settles it, right?" By no means. He was not a candidate, commented his press secretary, Tony Blankley, "but he is not making any statements precluding that possibility".

So the political silly season rolls on. But the hoopla is not entirely in jest. A small but influential group of conservative Republican theorists believe not only that Mr Gingrich may well run, but that he should run, as standard-bearer of the "new Republicanism" which swept Congress last autumn, but which none of the declared candidates truly embodies.

Bob Dole is a creature of the old Washington, tried and tested but irredeemably set in his ways. Pete Wilson, the California Governor, who is poised to enter the race, is reckoned a moderate. Texas Senator Phil Gramm is a genuine conservative but despite amassing a war chest of $10m, seems to be making little headway. On the distant right, Pat Buchanan merely fulminates. The rest of the field is drowning in indifference. So, runs the argument, why not Newt?

In this context, the campaign-that-isn't makes sense. At one level Mr Gingrich is almost baiting the Senate majority leader, reminding him by his very celebrity of who is the true spiritual leader of the party. And if Bob Dole should fall under the proverbial bus, then Mr Gingrich is perfectly positioned to step in.

At this stage, reckon even Mr Gingrich's perfervid supporters, a declared candidacy makes little sense. So fast is the Dole bandwagon rolling (a recent poll in Iowa gave him 52 per cent of the vote, against 11 per cent for Mr Gramm) that the Speaker could risk humiliation by challenging him. But if matters change, there is this summer's 25-city book tour which could as easily serve to promote a White House bid as a memoir setting out his vision of America.What else is a presidential campaign?