Newt at Ease in New Hampshire

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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Concord, New Hampshire

If it walks like a presidential candidate — visiting Iowa, South Carolina and, today, Concord, New Hampshire to kiss babies and pose for photos — and talks like a presidential candidate – “I’m sitting here at [the famed political Mecca] Barley House answering your questions – how could I not be serious?” — then why hasn’t Newt Gingrich announced his presidential candidacy yet?

He promised to do so by May 1, but the former House Speaker acknowledged today that he will miss that deadline. “Since it’s a Sunday, probably May 2nd or 3rd, but we have one or two last things that we’re wrapping up this month,” he told reporters today. “I think we’ll be in pretty good shape by May and I think we’ll probably be able to give you appositive answer the first week of May.”

Still, Gingrich probably won’t participate in the first debate scheduled for May 5, spokesman R.C. Hammond says, as he won’t have met all of the qualifications by then –  he could announce, but wouldn’t have the paperwork in yet. (Given the criteria for the debate, there’s a big question if it will happen at all: candidates need a $25,000 buy in, at least 1% in national polls and to have formed an exploratory committee by the end of April. The only candidates that would likely even qualify are Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and maybe Herman Cain — and none seem particularly inclined to participate.)

“The field is wide open right now,” says Ovide Lamontagne, a Tea Party candidate who nearly toppled Kelly Ayotte in last year’s Republican Senate primary in New Hampshire. Lamontagne came to do a radio interview with Gingrich at the Barley House. “He’s an impressive guy, but I’m undecided.”

Gingrich is anything but undecided, even if it’ll be a few more weeks before he makes his candidacy official. He worked the room at the Barley House like the political pro he is. He politely ignored a tipsy woman heckler, who called him an “f—ing liar,” and solicitously answered her friend’s questions about why Republicans are so anti-public sector unions.

He adhered to Ronald Reagan’s 11th amendment, refusing to overtly criticize his rivals. When asked about Mitt Romney’s vulnerability on health care, he said, “Gov. Romney’s very smart and I think he’ll be a formidable candidate.” He’s slightly less generous with Donald Trump. “Having him around adds a lot of life to the party,” he said. Gingrich smiled before digging in the stiletto: “Like a circus…. there’s a Barnum-esque quality to him and I think he would take that as a compliment.” Yes, Gingrich called Trump a clown and passed it off as a compliment.

Throughout his visit, Gingrich – always a man of ideas – tossed out policy suggestion after policy suggestion, from forming a commission on jobs to studying the Japanese earthquake for lessons that can be applied in the U.S. He also railed against President Obama’s offshore drilling policy as “insane.”

At the bar he stopped and had a Guinness with Thomas Wilhelmsen, the CEO of a local hospital who first met Gingrich in the mid-1990s. “Newt has a passion for health care,” Wilhelmsen marveled.

They say in New Hampshire that if you haven’t met a candidate six times, you can’t pass judgment on them. Gingrich has flirted with the presidency for more than 20 years and they know him well up here. That’s both a blessing and a curse given that he’s taking only around 5% in the polls. So, is he worried that, given his well-known brand, he’s not doing better? “I think we’re doing fine,” Gingrich says. “If you look at the team we’ve organized in Iowa, the team we have assembled here, the team we’ve organized in South Carolina, the events we’ve done in Georgia – I feel very comfortable where we are.”

He looked comfortable too. “What do you want?” he asked Bernie Lucey and Judy Maloney as he stopped at their in table in the restaurant.

“I’d like lower taxes,” Maloney, 49, a retired hydrologist from Concord, said.

“Well, that’s the New Hampshire spirit,” Gingrich quipped.