MANCHESTER, N.H. -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich achieved even more than he had hoped for with his magical mystery tour of New Hampshire.
He not only came face to face with a moose, he came face to face with the president, seeming to establish himself as Mr. Clinton's political equal by sharing the stage with him at Sunday's genteel town hall meeting.
The speaker's four-day trip to New Hampshire, punctuated by the joint appearance with President Clinton, solidified Mr. Gingrich's standing as the dominant GOP force in the nation. It also fueled the hot speculation about the Georgia Republican's presidential ambitions.
As the tour ended yesterday, Mr. Gingrich suggested that he had, indeed, been testing the political waters in New Hampshire, the state that holds the nation's first presidential primary. But he continued his equivocation on the subject.
He said he thought "the odds actually lengthened this weekend" against his becoming a candidate. "An amazing number of people up here said, 'We really like what you're doing as speaker. But it's really important that we have a strong speaker and a strong legislative branch, and what you're doing is an historical assignment that you should not step away from to try to be president,' " Mr. Gingrich said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show.
But, at the same time, he hinted at what many have thought was his game plan all along: a strategy of positioning himself to jump in the race if the leading GOP presidential candidate -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas -- stumbles.
"Bob Dole is the front-runner," the speaker said in the interview. "Nobody has a chance if Bob Dole makes no mistakes and continues doing what he's doing. If he makes mistakes, then (Republican presidential hopefuls) Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson, Lamar Alexander -- there are a lot of players who become serious contenders at that point."
Newt Gingrich among them? He didn't say no.
In fact, asked about a remark by still another GOP presidential contender, Patrick Buchanan, that Mr. Gingrich could not win the nomination, the speaker said, "Why don't you ask any 10 Republican governors whether they think Pat or me would have the better chance of winning the nomination."
Over the past four days, Mr. Gingrich has reveled in the limelight, conducting a road show that had all the trappings of a full-fledged presidential campaign -- press, protesters, stops at Dunkin' Donuts to meet real people.
He roared around the state in a helicopter, landing in cow pastures and rifle ranges.
As Sunday's exercise in collegiality showed, this was not the Newt that Washington knows, the one who lambastes Democrats for "grotesque and disgusting" acts. New Hampshire saw Newt the Nicer -- so much so that the highly conservative Manchester Union Leader said he resembled a "shaggy lap dog" at his town hall-style meeting with Mr. Clinton on Sunday.
Many locals who heard Mr. Gingrich speak over the weekend said they came away impressed by the speaker's eloquence and boldness.
In his longest speech, before an audience of more than 800 at the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce dinner, he announced, with characteristic audacity, "I'm trying to shape the entire agenda and shape of the 1996 campaign. That's what I came here to do."
At nearly every appearance, he mapped out his nine-point plan for nothing less than saving American civilization.
"He's pretty rough. I like his attitude. He comes right out with his stuff," said Dustin Cournoyer, a Nashua sales representative who heard Mr. Gingrich speak at a fish and game club picnic. "I like his honesty."
But, as Mr. Gingrich himself acknowledged, such admiration has not necessarily translated, at least so far, into a clamor for him to run for president.
Mr. Gingrich has said he'll likely continue the guessing game up until the filing deadline for presidential candidates in December. He admits he is doing it, at least in part, to keep the cameras and microphones hovering around him while he talks about his agenda.
Yes, he says, "it's openly manipulative. It's not my fault the system only responds to personal ambition rather than ideas, so I have to go through a Kabuki dance of personal ambition."
It may be demanding choreography, but he seems to know all the steps and like the music.