Newt looks booked for a White House bid

After six months of squabbling, Newt Gingrich's multi-million-dollar book show is finally on the road. The question that now titillates political Washington is - will a planned national tour this summer promote not a book but a Gingrich run for the presidency?

On Thursday the House Speaker's controversial literary career took a major step forward as a hopelessly divided House ethics committee, which has been looking into allegations of impropriety against him, abandoned its efforts to come up with an agreed recommendation.

That same evening, Mr Gingrich was in New York signing a contract with Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins for To Renew America, the ideological manifesto for which he was to get an advance of $4.5m (pounds 2.8m) until a public outcry forced him to scale that sum down to a more modest sum of just $1. He will, however, receive 15 per cent royalties on hardback, and 7.5 per cent on paperback sales.

With the book written and the presses about to roll off the first 500,000 copies, attention is shifting to the 25-city book tour being organised by his publishers. For Mr Gingrich's Democratic foes, it is another example of the Speaker using his public office for private gain. HarperCollins, which will foot the bill, demurs: the tour is a "traditional" exercise "befitting a high-profile celebrity", a spokesman said. Others, however, see a deeper design.

As the most famous Republican in the land, Mr Gingrich is naturally suspected of harbouring White House ambitions. Not so, he insists: he has "no plans" to run. But his refusal flatly to rule out a 1996 presidential bid, and a much-remarked trip next month to New Hampshire, scene of the ever-crucial first primary election, has been more than enough to keep the pot of speculation bubbling - even though Mr Gingrich jests that his main purpose in going is to "eyeball a moose". According to some accounts, an unfortunate animal has already been lined up for the encounter.

In part, talk of a Gingrich candidacy reflects no more than the ennui of Washington punditry. But it also betrays a feeling among Republicans that without Mr Gingrich, the campaign will have no conduit for the energy and fervour which swept the party to its stunning takeover of Congress last November. Hence, perhaps, the prediction by certain right-wing columnists that the publisher Malcolm Forbes Jnr, a committed "supply-sider'' and almost as colourful as his balloon-flying billionaire father, will join the fray. But a Forbes, they wistfully admit, is not a patch on a Gingrich.

But time remains, and the book tour would be a perfect launch-pad for a campaign. Democrats are leaping to the attack, muttering darkly about a Gingrich challenge bankrolled by Mr Murdoch. And conspiracy theorists have not far to look for proof. Was it not just this week, they note, that the House Commerce Committee, supported by Mr Gingrich, approved a media deregulation package benefiting, among others, Rupert Murdoch?

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