After all is said and done, the Big Question remains: Would $4.5 million have been too much to pay for the Gospel According to Newt?

Now that Newt Gingrich's book "To Renew America" has been on sale for four months, the answer appears to be yes.

Last year, the House speaker was offered $4.5 million as a book-contract advance by HarperCollins, the publishing house owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This raised a lot of questions. For openers, Murdoch had a keen interest in telecommunications legislation that was before the House at the time.

Gingrich said he'd been "stupid" to consider taking the big bucks. He agreed to accept $1 up front instead and take his chances that the book would make a profit.

After it was published on July 5, other questions arose. Some taxpayers wondered if they should be paying for the author's security as he toured the nation, signing books in 25 cities. Others asked about bulk sales to groups such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. The House Ethics Committee is looking into the bulk sales.

But the Big Question -- whether a Washington book, even if it is by a high-profile House speaker, is worth what Murdoch was offering -- still remains.

"HarperCollins should be the happiest publishing company in America," said one executive at a competing firm. "If they had paid the advance, they would have been in sorry shape."

To be sure, HarperCollins has declared Gingrich's book a "spectacular success." It was on The Washington Post's bestseller list for 10 weeks. It knocked around the New York Times list for 12 weeks, spending seven weeks at the very top. It was dethroned Sept. 10 by Ellen DeGeneres' "My Point . . . And I Do Have One."

According to HarperCollins, the book is in its sixth printing. A total of 665,000 copies have been shipped so far. That's a lot of books in print.

So maybe Murdoch's advance offer was just the right size for someone of Gingrich's celebrity. After all, Colin Powell got more than $6 million from Random House for "My American Journey." (On the other hand, former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin reportedly received only a low six-figure advance for his memoir "In Confidence.")

But maybe not.

HarperCollins has been giving out the same stats since mid-August.

Gingrich's office would not update the figures. "We have no information regarding the speaker's book," said Lauren Sims, Gingrich's deputy press secretary.

An unscientific survey of bookstores around the country, however, reveals that sales are in the doldrums.

At Square Books in Oxford, Miss., bookseller Cristen Coker said that "To Renew America" never did sell well in her town. She said the store sold 12 copies in July, three in August. Five copies are now on the shelves. Of course, she conceded, "we keep a lot of his books in the humor section."

Mitchell Kaplan of Books and Books in Miami said, "We've sold a total of 11." His market, he said, is politically mixed, including conservatives and liberals.

"If I had to gauge the outcome of an election based on the sale of books, I would say that Colin Powell would beat Newt Gingrich hands down. Or it may be that Newt Gingrich's message is already out there."

At the B. Dalton's bookstore in Cumberland Mall, in the heart of the Georgia lawmaker's 6th District, sales of "To Renew America" have "sort of petered out," said assistant manager Brian Schwartz. "We sold a bunch in July, a few in August and a smattering in September and October."

Monique Hickey at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Seattle said: "We've sold 121 books. Sales seem to be on the decline." She said the store had not sold any copies of Gingrich's book during the month of October.

Books that do not sell at bookstores are returned to the publisher for credit. "For most books, returns usually exceed 30 percent," said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Bantam.

So if sales of "To Renew America" continue to stagnate and bookstores return 30 percent of the copies now in print, final sales will be 465,000. The book sells for $24. Do the multiplication and you get $11,160,000. Then you take 15 percent of that figure, which is roughly the author's share, and you get $1.674 million. Of course, without hard-and-fast figures, this is only a guesstimate.

Not shabby. But it's considerably less than the advance HarperCollins was offering. The paperback, also to be published by Harper, should generate some revenue. The book is also being published in Korea and Taiwan.

If Gingrich does decide to go for the presidency, the folks at HarperCollins believe sales of his book will again pick up. If he doesn't run, however, "To Renew America" may be headed for the remainder shelves. CAPTION: Colin Powell's memoir rated a $6 million-plus book advance; Newt Gingrich had to turn down $4.5 million, and may clear far less.