Prime-time Newt hits purple patch

A small fleet of helicopters, fine. How else can a busy politician keep to a jam-packed schedule? If the waiting media mob matched that commanded by one of OJ Simpson's lawyers, better still. In an often dreary trade, this at least is a man with star quality. But mauve smoke?

Thus it was this weekend as Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, self-appointed leader of the Republican revolution and super-celebrity, arrived at the Nashua Fish and Game Club, as staunch a redoubt of the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment as can be found in New England, writes Rupert Cornwell.

No sooner had the helicopter landed on the club's rifle range and disgorged the grinning hero than the purple smoke was let off. Not exactly a standard welcome, but the Fish-and-Game crowd had never had Newt on its hands before.

The next day he would search for moose, hold forth on the talk shows, and share the limelight with President Bill Clinton at a senior citizens' fete - all part of a breakneck whirl around the state which holds the first presidential primary in February. But on Saturday it was the annual family day and Newt Gingrich had something for everybody.

He was on cracking form, scorning Democrats and delivering bons mots by the bucket. To the elderly here, he offered re-assurance about health care. For the benefit of the younger, he delivered some thoughts on drugs: Singapore-style death penalty for traffickers, and two days a week of public disgrace for rich and famous users.

But guns were the topic of the hour, and the Second Amendment has no more impassioned defender than the Speaker. Mr Gingrich adores assertions that shock: "The fact no liberal wants to hear," he proclaimed. "If Germany had had the right to bear arms, there would have been no Holocaust."

And what was the difference between Poland and Hungary, and Afghanistan in Soviet times? The right to carry weapons. No one was unkind enough to remind him of the rubble to which Afghanistan's "well-regulated militias" have reduced Kabul.

But behind the beaming, the bragging and the bonhomie, the question remained: what was he up to in New Hampshire? Fund-raising, spreading the gospel of a nine-point plan to put the country to rights, promoting his book ventures, or testing the waters for a 1996 presidential run? Probably, in some measure, all of the above.

Few believe he will run for president. But in the absence of an armour- plated denial, the press treats him as a front-runner. "He's having a blast, and why not?" said Pat Buchanan, the right-wing commentator and Republican candidate.

And that indeed was a subtler message of this weekend's Newt spectacular. If he has drawn unmatched attention, it is not just because he is, as the media say, great copy, but because never has a modern Speaker wielded such power - a good part of it accumulated at the expense of the White House. Why risk all for an election the polls say he has no chance of winning?

Even in tax-hating, conservative New Hampshire, voters think, by three to one, he should stay where he is.

Whatever Senator Bob Dole's jealousy at the Speaker's royal progress through the Granite State this weekend, the Senate majority leader is still its choice for the Republican nomination, by a four to one majority.

A Newsweek survey out today offers no more cheer in a general election. President Clinton beats Mr Gingrich by a landslide, while both Mr Dole and General Colin Powell defeat the sitting President, by 49-40 and 43- 40 respectively. Mr Gingrich is unimpressed. "Those polls mean nothing,'' he said.''I'm the newest name, and I've been leading a revolution."

Words which only guarantee the speculation will continue - just as Newt intends. Whatever the future holds, he did accomplish one mission yesterday. After a fruitless sortie in the woods near Jackson in the north of the state on Saturday, he finally saw a moose - four of them in fact, wandering across the road."In Washington I can see the President any time, but not a moose," he had lamented.

In this astonishing, faintly absurd New Hampshire weekend, the Speaker did both.

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