Gingrich wise to shun '96 presidential race


WASHINGTON -- In the fullness of their provincialism, New York governors and some New York City mayors too have shunned suggestions that they run for president by insisting they already have the best job in politics. It is an argument perhaps only a New Yorker would make, and former Gov. Mario Cuomo for one seems to have believed it when he passed up a presidential candidacy on two occasions.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in his decision to skip a 1996 presidential candidacy, doesn't go quite that far, but there certainly is more than a germ of truth in his observation that "I hardly need to run for president to get my message out."

The manner in which Gingrich has stolen the news media spotlight from the man who does occupy the Oval Office has not been seen in Washington in recent memory. Not even Lyndon Johnson as the powerhouse Senate majority leader during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower took as much play away from the man in the White House as Gingrich already has from President Clinton.

Part of Gingrich's new clout comes from the fact that he is the first Republican speaker in 40 years, and one with a plan of action -- his "Contract with America" -- that is dominating the domestic agenda right now. Part also is Clinton's perceived weakness, nurtured by his transparent efforts to counter the contract's initiatives, often with pale imitations.

Having noted all that, however, there are other sound political reasons for Gingrich's decision to shelve any presidential ambitions.

On the most basic level, a Gingrich presidential candidacy now or later in the year would invite allegations of personal political climbing far beyond what critics already level at him. Coming on the heels of his grab for a $4.5 million book deal, sharply modified when it generated too much political heat, running for president when he had barely warmed the speaker's chair would surely have marked Gingrich as King Ambition.

Joining the Republican field to make Clinton a one-term president also could have been expected to lead House Republicans, especially the freshmen who bought into Gingrich's contract so enthusiastically, to question his commitment to the changes for which he has so passionately preached for years.

Then there is the relationship between Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, already a tenuous one in light of the way the speaker has spirited the national spotlight away from the Senate and Dole and over to the House and himself. Gingrich joining Dole as a presidential contender clearly would have spelled trouble for GOP cooperation between the two houses on Capitol Hill.

Finally, there is the very practical matter of campaign money. The newly bunched-up calendar of primaries and caucuses in February and March will demand hefty campaign treasuries of the candidates. That reality has already been a key factor in shunting former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to the sidelines, no matter what they say.

Beyond the question of whether Gingrich would have had the time to raise enough campaign money while steering his legislative agenda past the congressional shoals, there inevitably would have been questions about the personal political impact of every legislative decision made by him while wearing the two hats of speaker and presidential candidate.

Gingrich certainly hasn't been hurt by the speculation that he might seek the White House next year, and indeed he has helped himself by saying he considered the move and not only decided against it but also said so promptly. In addition to avoiding trouble with Dole, he cleared the air for the other sure 1996 starters, Sen. Phil Gramm and former Education Secretary and Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, possible candidates Sens. Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter and Govs. Pete Wilson, William Weld, Tommy Thompson and any others thinking about running.

At age 51, Gingrich has plenty of time to dream of the White House while he chews the political mouthful he has bitten off as a speaker bent on changing Washington.

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