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Gingrich Signals He Won’t Seek GOP Nod in ’96 : Politics: Speaker’s move redefines presidential battlefield. Those in the running court support of governors at New Hampshire gathering.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day after their final mock competition, the Republican presidential contenders moved to the real thing Sunday, battling in New Hampshire as the field was shaped once again by a prospect who decided not to make a go: House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich ended months of speculation about his interest in the presidential race by revealing his decision in a television interview.

“Probably, we are going to announce--I would say early [this] week or the week after Thanksgiving--that I’m not going to run,” the Georgia Republican said on ABC-TV’s “This Week With David Brinkley.”

Gingrich’s announcement, however linguistically tangled, clears the way for holdout Republican leaders and contributors to finally make up their minds about a candidate.

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It also signals the beginning of a period of rising tensions in the GOP presidential race, with several candidates still in the running but with time to overtake the front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, beginning to run out.

On Sunday, that increasingly hostile tone was evident among the candidates at the annual conference of Republican governors here.

Dole skipped the conference because of federal budget negotiations in Washington. But the two men who finished closest behind him in Saturday’s Florida straw poll, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, used the opportunity to open fire.

Both men stuck with their campaign strategies: Gramm, who has tried to portray the contest as a two-person race, focused his attacks on Dole; Alexander, whose strategists believe that Dole will fade and that their candidate can then inherit his support, fired away at Gramm.

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Gramm unleashed some of his sharpest criticism, blasting Dole as a compromiser who threatens to roll back the Republican progress made since the last election.

“He is basically not living up to what we received in the election,” Gramm charged.

He complained that Dole, in his role as Senate leader, was selling out the Republican agenda in his negotiations with President Clinton to end the six-day federal government shutdown.

Gramm said he would not support a plan he said Dole was considering that would produce a larger budget than the one Congress recently approved.

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“Bob Dole said ‘no deal’ with Bill Clinton on the budget” at the Florida straw poll, Gramm told reporters Sunday at a hotel in Nashua. “Then he came back last night and began cutting a deal.”

Alexander, holding a competing news conference across the hall from Gramm, scoffed that “all Sen. Gramm does is attack Sen. Dole. I couldn’t get in between Dole and Gramm if I tried.”

Alexander, however, also used the opportunity to take shots.

“What I’m suggesting is that we would probably balance the budget a lot quicker if Sen. Gramm went back to Washington to help Sen. Dole,” he said.

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As the race moved to New Hampshire, the Republican leaders assembled here generally seemed to believe that the weekend’s events had done little to change the basic shape of the campaign. Dole, they said, is still fighting the perception that he’s a weak front-runner, and the others are still trying to show that they are the party’s best alternative.

On Saturday, Dole fulfilled a promise to beat his opponents in the hard-fought contest at the straw poll in Orlando, Fla., spending handsomely to garner the support of about 33% of the 3,325 delegates.

But while Dole won, he failed to land the knockout blow he had wished on his competitors. Gramm finished second with 26% of the vote and Alexander scored 23%.

“He didn’t do quite as well as he wanted to, but he’s still the front-runner,” Gingrich said in his TV interview, referring to Dole.

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One indication that the straw poll did not clarify the field was the lack of any movement to one side or the other among the uncommitted GOP governors.

Dole has won the lion’s share of endorsements among the 31 Republican governors, roughly two-thirds of whom attended Sunday’s meetings here. So far, 15 governors have endorsed him, while two are backing Gramm and one is for Alexander.

But those who were uncommitted before the straw poll remained that way here. Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, for example, who had been a strong supporter of Gov. Pete Wilson’s busted presidential campaign, declined comment about the presidential field. “I’m just an observer,” he said.

Michigan Gov. John Engler, one of the most courted of the undecided state chief executives, said he has decided to stay uncommitted until there is a GOP nominee.

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In their remarks to the governors, Gramm and Alexander each cited the Florida contest as evidence that they have the best shot at Dole. But in New Hampshire, second place is more confusing because both men were ranked in a recent state poll behind two other Republican contenders: former television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and publisher Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr.


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