Gingrich to Decide on Presidential Bid by Labor Day '99
By Dan Balz
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) can't shake the presidential bug.
He toyed with running in 1996 even before he had settled in as speaker. Now he has put himself into the coming contest with an interview published yesterday in his hometown paper in Georgia.
Gingrich told the Marietta Daily Journal he has set a deadline of Labor Day 1999 for making a decision. Asked by the paper whether he wants to be president, he replied almost reflexively, "Sure, of course."
The speaker's comments come at the end of the most difficult year he has endured as a politician. He survived an ethics investigation earlier in the year and fought off challenges to his power from other Republican leaders and restive back-benchers.
Despite it all including his low approval ratings, which have improved only marginally over the past year his ambitions are irrepressible. "If you put together a list of 20 [possible GOP presidential candidates], I'm on the list," he told the newspaper.
Such talk was not exactly welcome news to Gingrich's staff, which has spent much of the year trying to beat back speculation that 1998 will be Gingrich's last year as speaker. His spokeswoman, Christina Martin, immediately sought to dampen whatever boomlet Gingrich was trying to set off.
"The story is merely a manifestation of hometown pride," she told reporters who called Gingrich's office for comment. "The speaker has stated repeatedly and with absolute resolve that he plans to be speaker until 2003. The concept of a presidential bid is nothing but a hypothetical wrapped in a prospect wrapped in a possibility."
Martin called back to insist that what Gingrich really was doing in his interview was to encourage all Republican presidential hopefuls to lay low as long as possible. "The speaker believes that by delaying presidential posturing until Labor Day , Republicans can stay focused on improving and building a better America without distraction and noisy clutter," she said. "His comments were simply to prioritize, and in prioritizing, the speaker was putting doing the right thing before presidential politics."
She also alluded to the apparent presidential aspirations of Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) to suggest someone could do two jobs at once, saying that Gingrich "admires the fact that while identified as a presidential contender, Governor Bush has not changed his focus on serving the people of Texas and is currently carrying out the responsibilities of his office without distraction."
It wasn't quite clear from the report out of Georgia whether the speaker's intention was to keep Republicans focused on "doing the right thing," or merely stirring the presidential pot as he did two years ago. He did say his focus will be on maintaining a congressional majority in 1998 and also said it was premature to speculate about who might be the nominee in 2000.
"Bill Clinton did not decide to run for president until Labor Day 1991," he told the Marietta paper. "You go back and look at Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater. It is impossible to imagine this early who the nominee is going to be and I think it is not worth the effort."
Talk of a presidential bid may seem presumptuous for a politician who has struggled to hold his leadership post the past year.
"I am somewhat incredulous," said one GOP strategist who said he had been sniffing around recently. "It's real. Apparently it's real."
Others questioned whether it was realistic for Gingrich to think he could delay a decision about running until the fall of 1999, given the fund-raising demands of a presidential primary campaign and the fact so many potential candidates already are plotting.
But William Dal Col, who ran the 1996 presidential campaign of magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, said Gingrich has more ability than other Republicans to raise money quickly and has the potential to tap existing organizations of friendly GOP House members if he chooses to run.
"He's probably the only one who could wait that late," Dal Col said. "I think he'd be extremely formidable and very viable, especially if he uses the 1998 and 1999 legislative sessions to put forward programs that would activate [Republican conservatives]."
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