All eyes are on Gingrich in his very public N.H. tour


WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, according to a Gallup Poll for USA Today and CNN, is the 1996 Republican presidential choice of 51 percent of voters surveyed.

That puts him miles ahead of Sen. Phil Gramm (with 12 percent) and the seven other declared or near-declared rivals for the GOP nomination. Other national polls indicate about the same.

So why is a small army of reporters poised to troop up to New Hampshire next weekend with declared non-candidate House Speaker Newt Gingrich?

The local sponsor of Gingrich's four-day foray into the nation's first presidential primary state, Rep. Bill Zeliff, has released an itinerary and procedures for distributing credentials and carting the press around the state that are worthy of a bona fide presidential visit.

An office to handle all requests has been opened in Manchester, and limited pool coverage has been established for some events and press buses chartered. It's as if Gingrich were a candidate and the visit taking place only weeks before New Hampshire Republicans vote, neither of which is the case.

The answer to the question of why all the hoopla is twofold: The doubting journalism establishment can't bring itself to believe that two-time presidential loser Dole won't fade or self-destruct between now and the start of the 1996 voting; and this speaker has drawn unprecedented attention to himself as a result of his new power base and his war on big government.

In all this, the fact that Gingrich himself, in a CBS News poll, is rated unfavorably by 51 percent to only 32 percent favorably is being brushed aside in the rush to cover his invasion of one of 1996's prime presidential battlegrounds.

Part of the lure is Gingrich's reputation, like Dole's, for shooting from the hip -- and sometimes aiming so low as to endanger his own feet.

The possibility that he may offer some unusually outrageous observations during his New Hampshire stay makes it a good bet reporters will not lack for raw material that can put their efforts on Page 1 or the television evening news.

Beyond that, there is the difficulty within the journalism establishment -- not to mention among many other Republicans, including the declared candidates -- to accept that Gingrich's overweening personal ambition has been satiated by his achievement of the House leadership.

He is so clearly the current star in the Republican Party firmament that he is guaranteed adoring crowds of party partisans, regardless of the polls indicating that more voters can't abide him than think he is this season's political savior.

So what is Gingrich up to, anyway?

His invasion of New Hampshire certainly will do nothing to help convince Republicans in the state that they already have a full and adequate field of heart-stoppers in the likes of Dole, Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, Arlen Specter, Richard Lugar, Pete Wilson and the rest.

All through the 1970s and 1980s, Sen. Ted Kennedy demonstrated the political benefit of being viewed as a potential if not real presidential candidate. It increased his influence in party councils and in the ability to ensure a wide and attentive audience in public debate for his views on the leading issues of the day. So it is with Gingrich.

The possibility, however remote, that he might inject himself into the 1996 presidential race keeps speculation fluid and maintains his position as the GOP's leading voice -- notwithstanding Dole's own Senate leadership position and front-running status in the polls.

As 1996 draws closer, it is inevitable that the voices from the presidential campaign trail will grow louder and command more attention. Gingrich's ability to hold center stage correspondingly figures to diminish somewhat -- unless the possibility of a late candidacy continues to loom over the GOP field and doubts remain about Dole, for reasons of age or anything else.

The point in Willie Sutton's immortal observation that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is" applies equally to ambitious politicians seeking to maintain or increase their share of the public spotlight.

So Newt Gingrich is going to New Hampshire, knowing there's no place better for basking in the press attention guaranteed by the speculation about what he's up to.

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