MANCHESTER, N.H. -- It walks like a presidential candidate and talks like a presidential candidate, so nearly 200 journalists are descending on this state this weekend to gather new clues to the political riddle of the season: Will Newt Gingrich be a presidential candidate?
The House speaker arrives this afternoon in New Hampshire, site of the all-important first-in-the-nation presidential primary, to begin four whirlwind days of maximum northern exposure: GOP fund-raisers, a dinner in his honor, interviews with newspaper editorial boards and local TV, private meetings with the state's political kingmakers -- and a much-touted foray into the White Mountains for moose-watching.
"He has a better schedule than any presidential candidate has been able to have," says Charlie Arlinghaus, executive director of the state Republican Party. "Everybody wants a piece of him."
Indeed, the non-candidate will fly by helicopter all over the state, along with his host for the trip, New Hampshire Republican Rep. Bill Zeliff, to get to the more than two dozen events packed into his pre-dawn to after-dark schedule.
A trip to New Hampshire is synonymous with a presidential bid, so Mr. Gingrich knows he is only fueling the already hot speculation about a 1996 run for the White House with this visit to the Granite State.
The Georgia Republican -- who has given different answers to LTC the "Are you running?" question for months -- also knows that such speculation practically guarantees him widespread media coverage.
Asked this week why he was making the trip, and letting the "will he or won't he?" game play on, he admitted that it was a way to keep the spotlight trained on him.
"Look, I want to get out a message of renewing America," he told reporters Wednesday. "I tried it the other way. I taught a 20-hour course. None of you would show up. I'm sure if I told you today I had a definitive Shermanesque statement, none of you would show up again."
"As long as I can get four bus loads of reporters to trail along looking for a moose, and they all have to listen to this message, I am winning. I don't have to announce for anything. I just have to keep saying, 'Gee, show up at the next press conference and we'll talk some more.' "
Mr. Gingrich may have another motive as well. As the debate in Washington over tax and spending cuts and government reform moves to the Senate, the speaker's larger-than-life profile may give him, and the House, extra clout when hammering out bills.
The downside is that the discipline and lockstep support Mr. Gingrich has enjoyed in the House may begin to fray. Many GOP members are already supporting one of the announced presidential candidates and may become reluctant to adhere to the Gingrich agenda if it would seem that they are helping to promote a White House run.
In the meantime, he admits he is "just sort of hanging out and having a good time" as the 1996 buzz -- and the media entourage -- swirl around him.
His trip organizers have been set up for the last week in a "Gingrich Travel Office" in Manchester. They are providing buses and helicopters to move the media throng around -- at the media's expense -- as well as filing centers so reporters can file dispatches from the road.
What's more, Mr. Gingrich has scheduled several news conferences each day, along with his TV and radio show appearances.
An avid animal lover, Mr. Gingrich has said, with a wink and a smile, that the real reason for his New Hampshire sojourn is to see a moose. So two "moose watches," to take place in the town of Jackson, by Mr. Zeliff's Christmas Farm Inn in the White Mountains, have been choreographed as media events. The schedule for Sunday begins:
"JACKSON -- 5 a.m. OPEN PRESS. Speaker Gingrich, Congressman Zeliff and press buses leave hotels for morning moose watch."
(Aides to Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Zeliff have been scouting out the moose situation in Jackson for the past couple weeks and have noted that, although they haven't seen any moose, they've seen "lots of evidence" of the large creatures.)
Among other activities, Mr. Gingrich is to meet with New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill, who has not endorsed a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Meldrim Thomson, a former governor considered a political deity by New Hampshire conservatives.
Along with appearing at fund-raisers for GOP House members, Mr. Gingrich is to attend a hoedown and a fish-and-game family day, appear on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley" from Jackson and be the guest of honor at a roast led by California GOP Rep. Sonny Bono.
Tonight, after an interview with WMUR-TV, the only network affiliate in the state, Mr. Gingrich is scheduled to speak at a dinner meeting of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, an event that sold out soon after the speaker's appearance was announced.
'Sort of like the pope coming'
"It's sort of like the pope coming up here," says former Republican Gov. Hugh Gregg. "He will get a mammoth reception, no question about it. He's a celebrity people here have never met or seen, and they're anxious to meet him."
Adding to the New Hampshire political frenzy this weekend will be an appearance by President Clinton, who is to speak at Dartmouth College in Hanover on Sunday.
"Gingrich will get more publicity than the president," predicts Mr. Gregg. "He's new and he's fresh, and he's putting on a good show."
In a state where the Republican party has grown more conservative -- and where tax cuts and a balanced budget are magical words -- it's no wonder that Mr. Gingrich's bold rhetoric and "Contract with America" promises hold much appeal.
Mr. Arlinghaus cautions that the wild acclaim he sees for Mr. Gingrich "doesn't necessarily translate into a presidential run or presidential support." And indeed, many Republican politicians and activists in the state have already lined up behind a candidate -- Mr. Zeliff and Sen. Judd Gregg are supporting Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who is the front-runner here as he is nationwide; Sen. Robert C. Smith is supporting Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.
In fact, two polls this week found that Mr. Gingrich does not draw the support Mr. Dole does, let alone beat Mr. Clinton in a one-on-one race.
But Mr. Arlinghaus also says that no candidate has a solid lock on the state. "There's a lot of elasticity," says the New Hampshire GOP leader. "Maybe that means an opening for Gingrich. People aren't running around saying, 'Gee, I wish he'd run.' But by the same token, they aren't running around saying, 'I wish he wouldn't.' "