MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In a political bonanza for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he and President Clinton will face off at a forum with local citizens this afternoon.
After two days of offers and counter-offers -- sparked by an offhand remark Mr. Clinton made Thursday offering to introduce Mr. Gingrich to the folks of New Hampshire, the site of the nation's first presidential primary -- the two leaders agreed to meet at a senior citizens center in Claremont and take questions from an audience of about 300.
After haggling with the White House over some of the particulars of the joint appearance -- namely, the makeup of the audience and whether or not talk-show host Larry King would act as moderator -- Mr. Gingrich finally accepted the president's terms for today's event.
For him, any appearance with the president would be a plus. Mr. Gingrich's initial proposition that the two men share a platform boxed the White House into a corner since it was Mr. Clinton, who, whether jokingly or not, had made the first suggestion they should get together.
"I would hope it's a very friendly, very positive dialogue and that people say afterward, 'It's nice to see that leaders that belong to different parties and different branches actually can find some DTC way to deal with each other that isn't hostile and isn't confrontation,' " Mr. Gingrich said yesterday at a news conference here.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said, "We're delighted he's coming. The president thinks it will be an enjoyable afternoon."
The hastily arranged face-off between the leaders of the nation's two major political parties added yet another twist to Mr. Gingrich's "noncampaign" swing through the state this weekend.
Sharing the stage with Mr. Clinton also adds to the presidential candidate's aura that the Georgia Republican, who has had the spotlight fixed squarely on him for the last several days, has done little to dispel.
At the 4 p.m. event, which CNN is to broadcast, each of the two leaders will speak for about five minutes and then take questions from the audience.
Mr. Gingrich said the entire event should last about 45 minutes.
Mr. Gingrich had proposed that CNN's Larry King moderate, and the talk-show host had agreed. But the speaker said the White House rejected the idea.
"They were very happy to use him before. I thought that talking about policy was at least as useful as imitating Brando," Mr. Gingrich said, tweaking Mr. Clinton for his recent appearance on the talk show during which he did a Marlon Brando imitation.
Instead, the head of the seniors center will moderate.
Mr. Gingrich, who has been traveling the state since Friday saying he was not a presidential candidate but refusing to rule it out, insisted this joint appearance was not about politics.
"I'm not going to take the position that the summer of the year before the campaign, the speaker of the House should not come to New Hampshire," he said at his late afternoon news conference.
He said it was not his intention to debate the president. "Rather than try to score points off each other, let's each say, 'Here's how we can solve problems.' "
He said he hoped Mr. Clinton would talk about what he would do to save the Medicare fund so the senior citizens could see the differences in their approaches.
"Philosophically, we are more different than we are in personality," Mr. Gingrich said.
"We both like policy. We both read books. We have a range of ways in which we can identify. We both own Mustangs. We both like to sit around and talk. He's much better at the personality side of politics."
Remarkably, this "summit" came out of a casual remark Mr. Clinton made last week in a conference call with New Hampshire reporters. Asked what he would show Mr. Gingrich if he could take him around the state, the president said he would like to introduce Mr. Gingrich to places where they could both talk to citizens -- like a bowling alley or Dunkin' Donuts.
Mr. Gingrich leapt on Mr. Clinton's remarks, and on Friday invited Mr. Clinton to Jackson, a small village in the White Mountains, where the speaker is looking for moose this morning.
Mr. Clinton, who is speaking at Dartmouth College in Hanover this morning, said he couldn't make the trip to Jackson, but invited Mr. Gingrich to join him at a picnic he was scheduled to attend at the Earl Bourden Senior Citizens Center this afternoon.
Mr. Gingrich, a target of many senior citizens who fear Republican proposed cuts in Medicare's growth, said he didn't want to encounter a hostile, "stacked" audience. To no avail, he pressed the White House to open the event up to the entire Claremont community and not restrict it to seniors.
Yesterday, Mr. Gingrich said he was disappointed the event wasn't going to be more open, but accepted what he called Mr. Clinton's "generous" offer.
Many here -- Democrats and Republicans -- were surprised that the the president agreed to the forum.
"It's a blunder politically to lend legitimacy to Gingrich," said Jeff Davis, a Peterborough anesthesiologist and a Democrat who is supporting Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
Republican George Kurzon, also of Peterborough, said he thought Mr. Clinton was foolish for agreeing to the match:
"I wouldn't want to go in the ring with Mr. Gingrich. It would be a knockout blow."
The speaker's reception during his weekend in New Hampshire has been friendly, but not wildly enthusiastic. Perhaps reflecting recent statewide and national polls that show tepid support for a Gingrich presidential bid, few if any have rushed up to the visitor pleading with him to run.
Arriving at the airport here Friday, he said he had seen polls that suggested a presidential victory for him was probably "a long shot."
But while he said he was "not a candidate," he added that he was "not closing the door" on the possibility.
"Would I like being president? Probably," he said in response to a question. "But it's not a burning desire on my part."
He did, however, have a burning desire to see a moose this weekend, and until the president emerged, the moose had been a sort of theme for the speaker's trip.
Asked yesterday which was the more exciting prospect -- seeing a moose or seeing the president -- Mr. Gingrich said, "I see the president all the time. I've never seen a moose."